Former Sen. Jim DeMint isn’t on the South Carolina Republican presidential primary ballot. But his legacy is.
The deeply conservative Republican’s imprint on Saturday’s first-in-the-South primary is evident in the top tier of candidates. Call them “All DeMint’s Children.”
Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, two upstart first-term U.S. senators, were elected to office with help of a political action committee operated by then-Sen. DeMint, who’s from from Greenville, S.C.
He also aided libertarian-leaning Rand Paul – who dropped out of the presidential race earlier this month – in his successful 2010 Senate bid, bucking then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his preferred candidate for the Kentucky seat.
With their elections, DeMint helped spawn an uncompromising conservative Republican wing on Capitol Hill that clashes with its party leadership – see current Senate Majority Leader McConnell and former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio – almost as often it spars with Democrats.
Now DeMint’s political progeny are vying for a shot at steering the party, if not a post-Obama White House, in a hard right direction.
“They are his political godchildren, they really are,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. “I think with either of them (Cruz or Rubio) as the head of the party, Jim will look back on his work as having borne some real fruit.”
Even bombastic billionaire Donald Trump could be considered a political stepson, Mulvaney says.
“The anti-establishment, anti-Washington fervor is contained in part of the tea party movement and is part of the Trump movement. . . . Trump is in the same camp philosophically – because clearly he’s not – but he’s riding the same type of wave.”
In South Carolina, especially at this time, having some connection to DeMint sure can’t hurt you.
Clemson University political science professor Dave Woodard
DeMint, who left Congress in 2013 to lead the conservative Heritage Foundation research center, repeatedly declined requests to discuss the presidential primaries and his political preferences, citing the foundation’s 501(c) (3) nonprofit tax-exempt status, which restricts advocacy activities.
But he waded into the South Carolina primary Wednesday when he was asked about Rubio and Cruz in an interview on former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain’s nationally syndicated conservative radio talk show.
“I’m proud of both of those guys,” DeMint said in the radio interview. “I like both of these guys, and I can’t make a recommendation coming from Heritage.”
Like a protective father, DeMint defended Cruz in the interview from charges by his opponents that he has few friends on Capitol Hill.
“I know people in Washington didn’t like me, either,” he said. “Anyone who’s liked in Washington is probably part of the problem, so that’s a badge of courage as far as I’m concerned.”
Cruz and Rubio have sought to capitalize on DeMint’s influence in the state in the days leading to the primary.
In a recent Rubio campaign radio spot, for example, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., says, “Marco Rubio is the sixth most conservative member of Congress – House and Senate – according to the Heritage Foundation, which, of course, is led by Jim DeMint right now.”
He’s not a show horse. He’s the real deal.
Sen. Marco Rubio in his book, “An American Son: A Memoir,” on Jim DeMint
Almost immediately after DeMint complimented Cruz on Cain’s radio show, a Cruz-supporting super PAC – Keep the Promise – whipped up an ad featuring DeMint’s visage and spliced audio from the interview.
Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at Washington’s American Enterprise Institute, said Cruz most embodied the no-retreat, no-surrender outsider style that had marked DeMint’s 14-year congressional tenure, much to the annoyance of some of his colleagues.
“Cruz is the heir to what DeMint began.” Ornstein said. Cruz “is like ‘I really don’t about these institutions. I’m not here to get along. I’m here to blow the place up.’ ”
As a senator, DeMint often clashed with party leadership for inserting himself and money from his Senate Conservatives Fund PAC into political races – even against incumbent Republicans. He scored some victories with the elections of Cruz, Rubio, Paul, Mike Lee of Utah and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
But he also had some failures.
Richard Mourdock beat six-term incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., in a 2012 primary but lost the general election to Democrat Joe Donnelly. Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell defeated moderate Republican Rep. Mike Castle in the 2010 Senate primary but lost to Democrat Chris Coons in the general election. O’Donnell’s campaign suffered when a video surfaced in which she said she once “dabbled” in witchcraft.
Still, Clemson University political science professor Dave Woodard said DeMint’s stature and influence in South Carolina were solid.
“In South Carolina, having DeMint’s imprint helps,” he said. “He still remains very popular here.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized DeMint’s career in Congress. He served three two-year terms in the House of Representatives in addition to his eight years in the Senate.
Vera Bergengruen contributed to this article.