WASHINGTON — In typical blunt fashion, Sen. Jim DeMint recently warned of the dangers to America from the lame-duck zombie Congress that’s poised to resolve weighty issues such as the looming “fiscal cliff” before it adjourns at the end of the year.
The biggest threat is “the ‘lame duck’ members of Congress . . . who have either announced their retirement or been replaced by voters,” DeMint wrote last month on his senatorial website blog. “These few dozen ‘zombie’ legislators, unlike their colleagues, are utterly free from public accountability.”
With his impending departure from the Senate announced Thursday, DeMint, R-S.C., officially joined the zombie class as his 14-year congressional career ends when the 112th Congress completes its business.
But the South Carolina conservative firebrand won’t be aimlessly roaming the political countryside. From his new perch at the Heritage Foundation, he’ll very likely continue the role he carved during his Senate and House of Representatives days as a cultivator and kingmaker of conservative congressional and presidential candidates – and occasional irritant to his party.
“South Carolina has a long tradition of colorful politicians who stand outside the mainstream,” said Blease Graham, an emeritus University of South Carolina political science professor, harking back to the late Sen. Strom Thurmond and bare-knuckle political guru Lee Atwater. “I think DeMint stands to take a place among that group.”
Since DeMint’s arrival on Capitol Hill, when he was first elected to the House in 1998 and the Senate in 2004, he’s been a drum major for fiscal restraint and conservative purity within the Republican Party in terms of policy and candidates.
His star rose around 2006, when he spearheaded the cause against targeted political spending known as earmarks, helped scuttle a drive for comprehensive immigration legislation desperately sought by then-President George W. Bush and later led the charge against President Barack Obama’s health care law.
The soft-spoken DeMint, from Greenville, S.C., used skills he developed as the former owner of a marketing firm, and deftly labeled his targets. Comprehensive immigration became “amnesty” and he warned – incorrectly, as it turned out – that the health care law battle would be Obama’s “Waterloo.”
One of the poorest members of Congress – with an estimated $40,501 in wealth, according to a Washington Post analysis of lawmakers –DeMint used his Senate Conservatives Fund political action committee to contribute heavily to tea party and other conservative candidates. The PAC amassed millions of dollars, and much of it went to political unknowns or novices, or to those whom the traditional Republican Party establishment had rebuffed.
Some of DeMint’s political children paid homage Thursday.
“He created the opportunity for principled but underfunded candidates to have a chance,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who was mentioned as a possible vice-presidential candidate this year and a potential presidential contender in 2016. “That was certainly my case. So I think the Republican conference is better for Jim DeMint’s service.”
But not all Republicans agree. DeMint often was at loggerheads with the party’s election apparatus, which more often than not was looking for House and Senate candidates with the best chances of winning and leading the party to a congressional majority, instead of which candidates were more conservatively pure.
“The priority is not first the majority,” DeMint told McClatchy in 2010. “We had a big majority with 55 Republican senators. We had a big House majority. We had Bush in the White House. We spent too much, borrowed too much – and they (the voters) threw us out.”
Even on his way out of office, DeMint thumbed his nose at House Speaker John Boehner this week for his counterproposal to Obama to avert the fiscal cliff.
“Speaker Boehner’s $800 billion tax hike will destroy American jobs and allow politicians in Washington to spend even more, while not reducing our $16 trillion debt by a single penny,” he said. “This isn’t rocket science.”
DeMint and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, argued over campaign tactics. Cornyn complained that DeMint, by inserting himself and his money into some races, contributed to defeats.
DeMint-backed candidates such as Rubio and Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin all are sitting at desks in the Senate chamber.
But some Republicans complain that DeMint cost the party winnable seats by throwing his support or resources to candidates such as Richard Mourdock, who failed to win the seat last month held by outgoing Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, who defeated moderate Republican Rep. Mike Castle in the 2010 primary for a Senate seat but was crushed by Democrat Chris Coons in the general election.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a fellow conservative who followed DeMint from the more free-wheeling House to the more buttoned-down Senate, noted that it hasn’t always been easy for DeMint to be the crusader of conservative causes.
“He was an anchor for conservative principles and he was willing to take all the heat in the world because of what he believed in, and he learned how to do it effectively,” Coburn said. “We both had a learning curve here. We didn’t do it effectively at first. We’ll miss him. It’s going to be a big void.”
DeMint still has a few more weeks to roam the Senate chamber and halls in this lame duck session before he joins his few dozen fellow zombies.