South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint accomplished very little in the Senate in the traditional sense: He wasn't a legislator, has no signature laws to his name and has never been part of any major bipartisan negotiations.
But the fact that DeMint leaves the chamber as one of its best-known conservative senators shows how a message man relying on the outside P.R. game can become a powerhouse in his party -- often with more influence than the Senate's old bulls and their laundry list of accomplishments.
It also shows how the powerful, ideologically rigid voices outside Capitol Hill urging Republicans to stay true to their conservative principles tend to be the real driving forces in the halls of Congress. And it underscores how both parties have seen their respective caucuses grow younger and more partisan, overtaking the consensus-minded senior senators who are more inclined to compromise.
As Congress grapples with a debt crisis it must resolve before year's end, DeMint's sudden announcement Thursday that he'd quit his seat in January to head the conservative Heritage Foundation shows where he thinks the real power center in his party resides.
"I honestly think I can do a lot more on the outside than I can on the inside," DeMint said after delivering a speech to an enthusiastic crowd at The Heritage Foundation.
It's a striking acknowledgment for a man who was poised to ascend to the top Republican spot on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in the next Congress. If he were to stay, DeMint would have a major hand rewriting the nation's highway policy and overseeing the country's aviation, passenger rail and telecommunications laws.
But given his emphasis on messaging over legislating, the 61-year-old's move to one of Washington's most influential conservative think tanks after a 14-year congressional career appears to be a natural choice.
"He's a good messenger; his skills as he says are in marketing and public relations," Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said after DeMint briefly addressed his colleagues at a party lunch.
"I think it gives him the chance to play the kind of advocacy role that he really enjoys," said Maine Sen. Susan Collins, one of the few remaining GOP moderates.
DeMint had long promised to quit after his second term, which is up in January 2017. But virtually no one knew he would resign his seat this soon. After Heritage made DeMint the job offer on Wednesday, he informed a handful of his most trusted aides later that day. On Thursday morning, he stunned the rest of his staff with the news, as he did when he told Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R), who will select an interim senator before a 2014 special election to fill out DeMint's term.
"I almost fell off my couch," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who met with DeMint privately in his office Thursday in the Senate Russell building. "I didn't see this coming."
Just as he has during his eight-year career in the Senate, DeMint relied on the outside conservative voices to communicate the news to his colleagues. He gave an exclusive interview to a writer for The Wall Street Journal's conservative editorial page and conducted an interview with Rush Limbaugh before telling most of his colleagues his decision. He quietly used side entrances to duck in to a caucus lunch in the Senate LBJ Room before quickly leaving, avoiding the masses of huddled reporters.
Asked if DeMint would grow more powerful as head of Heritage, Texas Sen. John Cornyn said: "I would use a different word: I would say, 'influential.' I think in that position he will be in a very influential position to help shape conservative thought and how to convey the message of conservative principles in a way that has a broader appeal."
But his critics say it was DeMint's hard-line brand of conservatism that has narrowed the party's tent and appeal to important voting blocs, such as Hispanics. DeMint first made his bones in the Senate in 2007, when he became a leading voice against George W. Bush's comprehensive immigration bill, calling it an "amnesty" for lawbreakers, a position that energized conservatives but turned off Hispanic voters.
Around the same time, DeMint's profile grew as he and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) became the leading voices in the chamber against the penchant for earmarking. With the help of the House GOP majority, the practice is now virtually nonexistent.
Rather than working the inside game of the Capitol, DeMint often railed on his colleagues in "the establishment" in speeches to activists, fundraising solicitations, on talk radio and on the conservative blogopshere. By consistently attacking his colleagues -- as well as their earmarks -- it won him few favors with GOP leadership.
But it wasn't until 2010 when DeMint's profile truly blossomed. As the tea party movement grew in strength, DeMint emerged as one of its few leaders in the Senate, slamming his colleagues when they strayed from purist conservative philosophy as he became more engaged in Senate primaries.
Rather than seeking out the most electable candidate in Senate general elections, DeMint used his Senate Conservatives Fund to prop up those he considered underdog conservatives. He often said he'd rather have a Senate with 30 conservatives than 60 moderates, a statement that runs counter to many in his party eager to return to the majority.
"I've differed with him on some of the things he's done, but that's par for the course," said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who also praised his colleague.
DeMint's electoral efforts met with mixed results. He was an early supporter of Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, whose candidacy effectively sent incumbent moderate Sen. Arlen Specter out of the Republican Party. And as his party was throwing its support behind Gov. Charlie Crist, the moderate Florida governor, DeMint was an enthusiastic backer of Marco Rubio, now a prospective 2016 presidential candidate.
"I wouldn't be here without him," Rubio told POLITICO Thursday.
But many of his colleagues believe DeMint made a series of poor decisions that hurt the party's chances at taking back the majority, particularly in 2010 when he backed the likes of general-election losers Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Ken Buck in Colorado. His colleagues who were the subject of his attacks -- like Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who lost a primary to Republican Joe Miller in 2010 but later won as a write-in candidate -- still remember those days.
"I won," Murkowski said Thursday when asked if there was any lingering bad blood between her and DeMint.
Yet as he became a chief messenger for the right, he was accomplishing little on the legislative front.
DeMint has authored the fewest number of laws of the six other Republicans from his freshman class, according to legislative records. Only one law has been enacted, and that was the naming of the Carroll A. Campbell federal courthouse in his hometown of Greenville, S.C.
While DeMint says that doesn't accurately reflect several of his legislative proposals that have become law when they were added to larger bills -- such as health-savings accounts and barring felons from working at ports -- he said Thursday his role has largely "been saying no to bad things."
DeMint may have sensed the timing was right to leave. Serving in the Senate minority with a Democratic president, he has fewer chances to distinguish himself from his GOP colleagues because all of them serve in the opposition party. And some like-minded rabble-rousers, like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, are grabbing more headlines these days than DeMint.
And he stressed how his chief skills are rooted in messaging and marketing, which he first acquired when his father-in-law gave him a job at his advertising firm. The Clemson University M.B.A. graduate later founded his own research firm, DeMint Marketing, in 1983.
Asked how DeMint's departure would change the chamber, senators expected the partisan battles to be as rancorous as ever.
"We've got a very robust conservative group in the Republican caucus, and in some ways, it's become more conservative after this election -- and Democrats became more liberal," Cornyn said Thursday. "We'll miss Jim, but I don't think it changes the dynamics of the debate internally."
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