OCTOBER 22, 2010 8:39 a.m. (2)
If DeMint’s stable of tea party insurgents win on Nov. 2, he could become the leader of a coalition of hyper-conservatives with tremendous power in a sharply divided Senate.
Currently, he enjoys regular Republican support from Sens. Tom Coburn and James Inhofe, both of Oklahoma.
Sens. John Thune, R-SD; David Vitter, R-LA; and Richard Burr, R-NC, all have voted with DeMint, but most analysts say South Carolina’s junior senator can only count on three steady votes as things stand now.
With 13 tea party-oriented candidates running that number could rise sharply.
DeMint, in a phone interview, downplayed his potential leadership in a cadre of tea party-style conservatives.
“I am encouraged that it looks like we could have eight to 10 more senators who are running on a pro business, limited government platform,” he said. “I don’t know how much of a leadership role I’ll play. Some of the candidates are people I’ve not supported (with his PAC).”
DeMint said early on he felt very much an outsider in the insular world of Washington politics and still does inside of the Beltway.
“Out in the country, though, I see a movement of millions of Americans who want to change the way government does business,” he said. “It feels good to see so many Americans who want to change Washington.”
Very much an issues-oriented politician, DeMint said the Congress must give business a climate of stability on things such as taxes in order to prosper. He would extend the current tax breaks for a year or two to facilitate stability and sees reforms in things such as seniority and earmarks as essential to bringing about the kind of change needed in the capital.
DeMint said he’d like to see a simplified tax system in place, changes to “Obamacare” enacted and actions taken to break the stranglehold on the political system by entrenched politicians.
All things that are considered essential within the tea party movement.
DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund has backed the campaigns of eight Reaganite and tea party candidates against establishment Republicans. The list includes Rand Paul in Kentucky; Christine O’Donnell, Delaware; Scott Miller, Alaska; Ken Buck, Colorado; Pat Toomey, Pennsylvania; Mike Lee, Utah; Marco Rubio, Florida; and Sharron Angle, Nevada.
Angle’s now famous “I’ve got juice with DeMint” promise to help Tea Party of Nevada candidate Scott Ashjian’s career if he would drop out of that state’s election illustrates DeMint’s meteoric rise to prominence.
The New York Times reported late last week that polls indicate the tea party is poised to rack up enough wins in the House and Senate to create substantial caucuses.
Eight candidates in the Senate were rated as having good, or better, chances of victory, but not all of those eight have enjoyed DeMint’s support.
Dave Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor, has known DeMint for nearly 20 years and considers the senator a friend.
He said the idea of a coalition of any sort holding together in the Senate for any length of time is unlikely.
“It would be like herding cats,” he said. “The Senate, by its nature, doesn’t lend itself to that kind of thing.”
Carol Fowler, chair of the state Democratic Party, said the prospect of DeMint leading a strong coalition in the new congress was frightening.
She cited his aborted attempt to put a hold on all bills cleared by his office just before the Senate adjourned to campaign in their home states.
“What he does in the lame duck session will tell us a great deal about the kinds of things we could expect if his people win in November,” she said.
“The tea party has done a good job of taking over the Republican Party in South Carolina and they’ve done it in an incredibly short amount of time,” Fowler said. “The real battle is for control of the GOP on a national scale and that’s where DeMint has overstepped.
“He’s turned his back on the people of South Carolina to further his national agenda.”
Those who know both men say DeMint shares the prickly mannerisms of Gov. Mark Sanford, but more so. Sanford, at political functions, famously stands apart for perfunctory handshakes and leaves. DeMint actually stands in a corner to meet his political obligations.
Woodard agreed that DeMint is something of an introvert.
“He’s not the back-slapping, kind of politician. He wins people over by the force of his arguments and does it in a very soft voice.
“Jim’s greatest asset is the strength of his convictions. Honestly, I think he’d be happier working for someone like the Heritage Foundation, coming up with policy ideas than he is in the Senate.”
In 2004, DeMint ran into a bruising primary fight with disgraced former state Treasurer Thomas Ravenel and former Gov. David Beasley for Sen. Ernest Hollings’ senate seat. He trounced Democratic candidate Inez Tenanbaum in the general election and went on to become very much an outsider in GOP circles.
That primary fight left scars on the first-term senator and so did the rejection he’s gotten from his GOP peers in the Senate.
“I don’t think Jim’s interested in higher office,” said Woodard. “Once a senator gets through his first re-election he becomes what’s known as a ‘national senator.’ That means he’s unlikely to face any significant opposition at home and can branch out and deal with bigger issues.”
Fowler said Alvin Greene, this year’s Democratic opponent for DeMint, “Isn’t going anywhere. He won in the primary against a well-respected opponent and that’s all there is to it.”
In the next election cycle, Fowler predicted, a different tune in the state and nation. “We’re going to see how much people like the kind of government they’re going to see from the far right.”
DeMint’s positions on privatizing Social Security and replacing the Medicare system with private insurance vouchers is well known. How much power he’ll have to actually implement those ideas will depend on any coalition he might be involved with in the new Senate.
“South Carolina has gotten a very powerful voice in the Senate with Jim,” Woodard said, “And I think the electorate is going to be very pleased with that.”
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