The non-agression pact is over.
Image by Alex Wong / Getty Images
WASHINGTON — Jim DeMint's departure from the Senate for the Heritage Foundation will put an end to a key promise the confrontational conservative made his peers: Not to attack incumbent senators.
In fact, Senate Republicans up for reelection in 2014 who have tangled with the South Carolina senator may do well to start looking over their shoulders. The South Carolina lawmaker is one of the most popular politicians in the Tea Party movement, which in many ways has mirrored his fiscally and socially minded brand of modern conservatism. Like the Tea Party, DeMint often relishes acting as thorn in the side of leadership, and he became famous for throwing often random seeming monkey wrenches into the legislative process over spending levels.
A vocal opponent of comprehensive immigration reform, DeMint has consistently argued the party needs to become more conservative and ideologically pure if it is to have lasting electoral successes — a message, while popular with activists, runs counter to the conventional wisdom amongst establishment Republicans.
And with the party struggling to find its identity in the wake November’s defeat — including a disastrous run on the Senate — that fight, and DeMint’s place in it, will remain front and center.
DeMint has been silent on how public of a role he’ll play in electoral politics over the next two years, and its unclear whether his new position at Heritage, a not-for-profit organization that is barred from playing in politics, will limit his ability to openly push for candidates.
Nevertheless, DeMint’s departure means he could play a pivotal role in the 2014 mid-term elections — either as a conservative kingmaker or as a spoiler who backs ideological pure but fundamentally unelectable candidates, as he did in 2010 with Christine O’Donnell.
And unlike the last two cycles, when DeMint’s activities were constrained by his promise not to target colleagues in primary races, he will be free in the coming months to pick and groom primary opponents to incumbents in the Senate.
Of the members up for election in 2014, six stand out as potential targets for DeMint.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell
There’s no love lost between DeMint and the top Republican in the Senate. The two have repeatedly clashed over policy positions McConnell has sought to push, as well as the broader direction of the conference and Republican Party.
As a result, McConnell has kept a short leash on DeMint — and he hasn’t been afraid to snap it on occasion. For instance, several years ago DeMint mounted an unsuccessful effort reform a host of committee seniority and leadership rules. Although popular with conservatives, McConnell was adamantly opposed to them. When, during a closed door meeting of the conference it became clear that he would lose his bid, DeMint sought to withdraw his proposals.
But McConnell refused — and forced a series of painful, embarrassing votes defeating the reforms.
Given his already significant unpopularity with conservative activists like Eric Erikson at redstate.com, McConnell was already facing at best thinly concealed hostility from conservatives in his upcoming re-election bid. And while he’s likely not in real danger from a primary challenge — or a general election Democratic opponent — DeMint has never been one to give up on a lost cause.
Image by Alex Wong / Getty Images
Sen. Lindsey Graham
They talk a good game about how much they like and respect one another, but relations between DeMint and Graham have been strained since the former arrived in the Senate in 2004.
Although Graham is on the whole very conservative politically, he also has a pragmatic streak. He worked with then Sen. Hillary Clinton on legislation early on during the Bush administration, a decision that resulted in significant grief from conservatives and anti-Clinton forces.
He’s also demonstrated a willingness to address issues like climate change, which are anathema to conservatives, and he backed both of President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court picks on the grounds that the president should be allowed to pick his own people, even if they are liberal.
DeMint had indicated he would back Graham during his 2014 reelection against any primary foes, although it was unclear whether he would do anything to dissuade his ally Rep. Mick Mulvaney from running a primary challenge.
Graham is also one of the right’s top targets for the 2014 primary season and there’s sure to be significant amounts of money flowing into the state, and without a hamstrung DeMint in the Senate giving him cover, he could be overwhelmed by that even if his colleague doesn’t actively target him.
Image by Mark Wilson / Getty Images