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The Legacy Of Sen. Jim DeMint — The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

Filed by KOSU News in Politics.
December 11, 2012

Jim DeMint, the Republican from South Carolina, has been in the Senate for all of eight years. During that time, he has not been elected to any major leadership position, nor has he put his signature on any piece of legislation worth a lick. But he has become, without a doubt, one of the most influential members of his party, if not the entire Senate. A thumbs up or thumbs down from the 61-year old DeMint could either boost or curtail a political career. At times, he’s been a kingmaker. Other times, he has been less successful. But no one questions his power.

Washington is still shaking from his Thursday bombshell that he will resign his seat come January to become the head of the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank. The announcement comes at a time when the GOP finds itself seemingly outmaneuvered on the state of the “fiscal cliff” negotiations, in which President Obama and the Democrats are winning the public relations war over the need to raise taxes on those earning more than $250,000 a year. For the longest time, raising taxes on anyone, let alone the “wealthy,” was a Maginot Line for Republicans. But last month’s election results and ongoing polling have sent them a message that their position on taxes was untenable.

That’s not the way DeMint and those of like minds see it, of course, and that’s perhaps one reason why he’s quitting. Even before his 2004 election to the Senate — during his previous six years in the House as well — he has been an uncompromising conservative when it comes to both economic and social issues. He watched, perhaps in dismay, as his party’s 2012 presidential nominee switched and softened positions as necessary to be elected. He watched, with ill-hidden contempt, as his party’s House leader, Speaker John Boehner, has made it clear he is willing to compromise to keep the economy from driving over that cliff. That would be heresy in the World According to DeMint. He can make or break candidates in the primaries, but he had less of a chance to influence his party on the issue most important to him. So he’s leaving.

He’s not exactly retiring. Perhaps, running Heritage will give him a greater voice in conservative circles and for conservative causes, greater chances to reward or punish his preferred Republicans. No longer will be be described as conspiring against Mitch McConnell. From the outside, he could attain greater power than he had before.

His influence. His endorsement has become the gold standard for true blue conservatives seeking a Senate seat. His early backing, financial and otherwise, proved crucial for a slew of movement conservatives running against the choice of the establishment in several 2010 GOP primaries. He and his PAC — the Senate Conservatives Fund — got behind Marco Rubio, who was taking on Gov. Charlie Crist, the party favorite, in Florida. He endorsed Rand Paul, who stood up to McConnell’s choice, in Kentucky. He pushed for Pat Toomey to take on liberal GOP Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania — an endorsement that was followed five days later by Specter’s switching to the Democrats. And he supported the defeat of Sen. Robert Bennett at the Utah state convention, which ultimately rejected Bennett in favor of Mike Lee. All of these candidates triumphed against their GOP brethren and won in November. And he was for Ted Cruz this year in Texas, who triumphed over establishment favorite David Dewhurst, the state’s lt. gov. and kept the seat for the GOP.

But more consequential, perhaps, are the times when he took on the Republican establishment and backed weak challengers who ultimately lost to the Democrats and forfeited seats the party should have won. Those include Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, who upset Rep. Mike Castle in the 2010 GOP primary and then got clobbered in November by Democrat Chris Coons; Sharron Angle in Nevada, a Tea Party favorite whose unwavering ideology contributed to the unlikely 2010 re-election of Democratic Leader Harry Reid; and Richard Mourdock in Indiana, who knocked off longtime incumbent Dick Lugar in the May primary this year and promptly lost the seat to the Democrats last month.

DeMint could be hailed as a hero for standing up for the more conservative candidates, especially if they won. But there is no shortage of Republicans who blame him for sabotaging party chances by backing, in some cases, disastrous candidates who blew golden opportunities. (It should be stated that there are many Republicans, in addition to DeMint, who would rather lose with conservatives such as O’Donnell and Mourdock than win with “RINOs” like Castle and Lugar.)

His campaign history. In 1998, when Rep. Bob Inglis (R) adhered to his personal term-limits pledge and left the House — he decided instead to challenge Democratic Sen. Fritz Hollings — DeMint, a businessman and ex-Inglis adviser, dove into the race to succeed him. But religious conservative groups, both nationally and in the Fourth District — where Bob Jones University lies — strongly backed state Sen. Mike Fair, a former Univ. of South Carolina quarterback. Fair led by a comfortable margin in the initial primary but DeMint, with Inglis’ backing, upset him in the runoff.

But while he held to a strongly conservative line during the campaign, DeMint’s House career focused as much on jobs and pocketbook issues as it did on social causes. And so he was unbeatable at home. In 2004, DeMint kept to his word and left the House after three terms. Conveniently, that was the year Hollings decided to retire, and from the beginning DeMint was the odds-on favorite to pick up the Senate seat for the GOP.

This time running with the support of the religious right, he clobbered former Gov. David Beasley in the GOP primary and then outlasted Inez Tenenbaum (D), the state Education Superintendent, in the general election. He breezed to a second term in 2010 over the hapless Alvin Greene.

His successor. Once DeMint is gone, Gov. Nikki Haley (R) will name a successor, whose term will expire in 2014. There is no shortage of Republicans who want the appointment, starting with the members of the six-member congressional delegation, five of whom are Republican. The most widely-mentioned name is Rep. Tim Scott, who first won his House seat in 2010 and who if chosen would become the first African-American senator from the South since Reconstruction, and only the second Republican, after Edward Brooke of Mass. (1967-78). There is no current black member in the Senate. There had been reports that Scott — soon to be the House’s sole black Republican now that Florida’s Allen West has been defeated — was ultimately planning a gubernatorial run. But Senate seats don’t come around often in the Palmetto State; if memory serves, Strom Thurmond (R) and Fritz Hollings (D) held onto theirs for a combined 4,000 years. So Scott has to head up the list.

Also there is another House Republican just elected to his second term: Mike Mulvaney, who ousted Budget Committee chair John Spratt in 2010. He has publicly said he wants to be considered for the seat. Other potential choices include former Rep. Gresham Barrett and ex-state Attorney General Henry McMaster (both lost to Haley in the 2010 gov. primary, but McMaster is thought to have a better relationship with the gov), former state GOP chair Katon Dawson, state Rep. Nathan Ballentine and current A.G. Alan Wilson (son of Rep. Joe Wilson). Even the name of the disgraced Mark Sanford, the former governor best known for his “Appalachian Trail” exploits. It will not be Mark Sanford.

But it could be Tim Scott.

There’s been a lot of print over how the suddenly-open Senate seat may benefit DeMint’s fellow Republican South Carolinian, Sen. Lindsey Graham. Graham has been accused of many apostasies in recent years, and GOP conservatives have been talking about a 2014 primary challenge for quite some time. Perhaps, these new reports indicate, those contemplating taking Graham on will now instead focus on the 2014 contest. That would make sense if Haley named a caretaker to hold the seat until then. But would they oppose someone like, say, Tim Scott?

Haley’s comment. The governor says she will not appoint herself to the Senate, nor seek the seat in 2014, and that’s probably good politics. Self-appointments to the Senate have undone most governors who have tried it, including South Carolina’s own Donald Russell. He had himself appointed to the Senate in 1965 but lost the Democratic primary a year later to Hollings.

As long as we’re talking history. Of all the governors who had themselves appointed to the Senate, only one was able to win a subsequent election on his own. Kentucky Gov. Albert B. “Happy” Chandler (D), who came to the Senate in 1939, won in a special election in 1940 and again in 1942. (He resigned his seat in 1945 to become baseball commissioner.) Here’s the complete list of governors appointed to the Senate and the result of the succeeding election:

Montana, 1933 – Sen. Thomas Walsh (D) died. Gov. John Erickson (D) appointed self, lost 1934 primary.

Kentucky, 1939 – Sen. Marvel Logan (D) died. Gov. Happy Chandler (D) appointed self, won elections in 1940 and 1942.

Nevada, 1945 – Sen. James Scrugham (D) died. Gov. Edward Carville (D) appointed self, lost 1946 primary.

Idaho, 1945 – Sen. John Thomas (R) died. Gov. Charles Gossett (D) appointed self, lost 1946 primary.

Wyoming, 1960 – Sen.-elect Keith Thomson (R) died. Gov. John J. Hickey (D) appointed self, lost 1962 election.

New Mexico, 1962 – Sen. Dennis Chavez (D) died. Gov. Edwin Mechem (R) appointed self, lost 1964 election.

Oklahoma, 1963 – Sen. Robert Kerr (D) died. Gov. J. Howard Edmondson (D) appointed self, lost 1964 primary.

South Carolina, 1965 – Sen. Olin Johnston (D) died. Gov. Donald Russell (D) appointed self, lost 1966 primary.

Minnesota, 1977 – Sen. Walter Mondale (D) elected vice president. Gov. Wendell Anderson (D) appointed self, lost 1978 election.

That’s a wrap. With Saturday’s runoff in Louisiana’s 3rd Congressional District, all 2012 House races are now accounted for. Rep. Charles Boustany, who had advantages in seniority, money and geography, comfortably defeated fellow Republican incumbent Jeff Landry, who was backed by the Tea Party. The two GOP members were pitted against each other because of redistricting; Louisiana lost a seat because of population losses. Boustany, an ally of Speaker John Boehner, won with about 61 percent of the vote.

Here is a complete list of incumbent House members who were defeated in 2012 in their bids for another term:

Republicans (23): Sandy Adams* (Fla.), Roscoe Bartlett (Md.), Charlie Bass (N.H.), Judy Biggert (Ill.), Brian Bilbray (Calif.), Mary Bono Mack (Calif.), Ann Marie Buerkle (N.Y.), Francisco “Quico” Canseco (Texas), Chip Cravaack (Minn.), Robert Dold (Ill.), Frank Guinta (N.H.), Nan Hayworth (N.Y.), Jeff Landry* (La.), Dan Lungren (Calif.), Donald Manzullo* (Ill.), Ben Quayle* (Ariz.), David Rivera (Fla.), Bobby Schilling (Ill.), Jean Schmidt* (Ohio), Cliff Stearns* (Fla.), John Sullivan* (Okla.), Joe Walsh (Ill.), Allen West (Fla.).

Democrats (17): Jason Altmire* (Pa.), Joe Baca* (Calif.), Howard Berman* (Calif.), Leonard Boswell (Iowa), Russ Carnahan* (Mo.), Ben Chandler (Ky.), Hansen Clarke* (Mich.), Mark Critz (Pa.), Kathy Hochul (N.Y.), Tim Holden* (Pa.), Larry Kissell (N.C.), Dennis Kucinich* (Ohio), Silvestre Reyes* (Texas), Laura Richardson* (Calif.), Steve Rothman* (N.J.), Betty Sutton (Ohio), Pete Stark* (Calif.).

*defeated by member of same party

Also leaving. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, a Missouri Republican who has served in the House since winning a special 1996 election following the death of her husband, Bill Emerson, announced she will resign her seat in February to become president and CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. The group was Emerson’s biggest campaign contributor over the course of her congressional career. She won her ninth full term last month with 72 percent of the vote.

(She is the second member re-elected last month to announce her resignation; Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) quit the House Nov. 21.)

Under state law, there will be no primary in the special election to succeed Emerson; the nominees will be chosen by the respective parties in the 8th CD. Among those Republicans mentioned as possible successors in this southeastern Missouri and overwhelmingly Republican district: state GOP executive director Lloyd Smith (Emerson’s former chief of staff), Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman (who lost to Todd Akin in this year’s GOP Senate primary), state Sens. Kevin Engler and Jason Crowell, state Sen.-elect Wayne Wallingford, and state Reps. Jason Smith and Mark Richardson.

The last Democrat to hold this seat was Bill Burlison, who was ousted by Bill Emerson in 1980.

And already left. Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) resigned from the House earlier this month to be sworn in as the new mayor of San Diego. He will be succeeded in the new 113th Congress by fellow Democrat Juan Vargas.

Political Updates. I post periodic political updates during the week — some serious, some not — on Twitter. You can follow me at @kenrudin.

Holiday shopping. If you find yourself in D.C. this Friday (Dec. 14) and Saturday (Dec. 15) and are in need of some GREAT holiday gifts at GREAT prices, you might want to come by NPR headquarters at 635 Massachusetts Ave. NW. We’ll be selling t-shirts,, hats, CDs, books – including (gasp!) Political Junkie shirts. I’ll be there on Friday, between 6-7 pm, signing shirts and keeping embarrassing comments to a minimum. Click here for more details.

Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, the Political Junkie segment appears on Talk of the Nation (NPR’s call-in program), hosted by Neal Conan with me adding color commentary, where you can, sometimes, hear interesting conversation, useless trivia questions and sparkling jokes. Last week’s show featured Walter Olson of the Cato Institute, who talked about the role Republicans played in passing same-sex marriage initiatives, and Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News, who discussed the passing of former Texas Democrat and former House Judiciary Committee chair Jack Brooks. You can listen to that segment here:

The day before, on Tuesday, Neal and I talked to two outgoing members of the 112th Congress: Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). Both are retiring at the end of the year. That segment can be heard here:

Podcast. There’s also a new episode of our weekly podcast, “It’s All Politics,” up every Thursday. It’s hosted by my partner in crime, Ron Elving, and me. This one was recorded a day late, on Friday.

And Don’t Forget ScuttleButton. ScuttleButton, America’s favorite waste-of-time button puzzle, can usually be found in this spot every Monday or Tuesday. A randomly selected winner will be announced every Wednesday during the Political Junkie segment on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. You still have time to submit your answer to last week’s contest, which you can see here. Sure, there’s incredible joy in deciphering the answer, but the winner gets not only a TOTN T-shirt but also a 3-1/2-inch Official No-Prize Button! Is this a great country or what??

Last week’s winner: Kathy O’Donnell of Keene, N.H.

Mailing list. To receive a weekly email alert about the new column and ScuttleButton puzzle, contact me at politicaljunkie@npr.org.

******* Don’t Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please include your city and state. *********

This day in political history: President-elect Richard Nixon announces the creation of a Council of Urban Affairs and names Harvard University’s Daniel Patrick Moynihan to head it (Dec. 10, 1968). During his tenure, Moynihan — an unsuccessful candidate for New York City Council President in the 1965 Democratic primary — made headlines when he suggested in a memo to Nixon that conversations about race would benefit from a period of “benign neglect.”

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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