John McCain's Veepstakes: Jim DeMint

(This is the 11th Veepstakes article. Already profiled have been Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, Minnesota Gov. Tom Pawlenty, former Ohio Rep. Rob Portman, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.)

After only four years in his first Senate term (and before that, six years in the U.S. House), Republican Jim DeMint of South Carolina has begun to draw widespread attention and generate enthusiasm among conservatives. Voted the most conservative senator by the National Journal in 2006, DeMint is both a champion of the pro-life cause and other cultural issues as well as a fervent advocate of lower taxes, less federal spending and less intrusive government. As a House member from 1998-2004 and president of the freshman Republican class of lawmakers in ’98, DeMint sought to rein in Appropriations Committee subcommittee chairmen and thwart earmarks. He proudly opposed the Bush-backed Prescription Drug bill of 2003 and the President’s No Child Left Behind education program.

Few things make the soft-spoken former advertising man from Greenville, S.C., grow more passionate than discussion of his party’s losing the spending issue and its way as a conservative force.

“We certainly need to assess our problems,” the 56-year-old DeMint said during a recent interview in his office. “Clearly one of the most obvious is just the spending, the huge spending increases under Republican leadership. We didn’t really accomplish nearly what we could have. We actually went the other way with No Child Left Behind and more federal control of education, expanding Medicare to include prescription drugs, in a huge unfunded new spending program, and the resistance to enforcing laws on our borders. This has created havoc within our country. Republicans are thought of as being a ‘law and order’ party — that’s where the angst is.

“It’s more than the immigration issue. In fact, immigration seems to be a small part. Are we going to enforce laws and are we going to have order in this country? That is a Republican-type question. These are the things that we would have expected Republicans to stand on — strong law and order and fiscal responsibility, individual responsibility.
During the Bush presidency, with a Republican majority we didn’t do that.”

DeMint spares little when it comes to fellow Republican Bush, saying that “after we stopped Clinton on the nationalization of health care and forced him to sign welfare reform, we lost our way when Bush was elected. I think this was because, while in some ways the Republican Party was transformed by the revolution of the 1994 elections, it was still being run by senior Republicans that were here before and controlled the appropriations process. Republicans in the majority stopped playing defense, and the Democrats were playing offense on spending. So, the spending in the earmarks went from a few hundred to over ten thousand.”

As one can clearly see from a morning with Jim DeMint, he says for the record what’s on the minds of many conservative Republicans. And it hasn’t hurt him. Much as Sen. Barry Goldwater (R.-Ariz.) became a conservative hero after blasting spending under a Republican President as a “dime-store New Deal” and went on to be a successful chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, DeMint is the one of the top ten fund-raisers for the NRSC. Moreover, he chairs the Senate Republican Steering Committee, the informal gathering of Senate conservatives, and has just launched the Senate Conservative Fund (SCF), a unique new political action committee to help Republican Senate hopefuls who are conservative on social and economic issues.

As one staffer told me, “Jim’s not out to make friends and get a leadership position out of this — he just wants more conservatives in the Senate.”

‘Citizen Politician’

Like Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, Jim DeMint is a “citizen-politician” who got into politics after a successful career in private business. Raised by a single mother who ran a dancing school out of their home, DeMint graduated from the University of Tennessee and Clemson University’s business school. Following stints as a salesman for Scott Paper and then as an advertising executive, he launched his own marketing and research company in 1983. DeMint Marketing soon became a thriving business with small companies, colleges and hospitals as clients.

Active in the Presbyterian church and president of his local Kiwanis Club, DeMint got into politics handling the advertising for friend Bob Inglis’s winning race for Congress in 1992. When Inglis stepped down six years later, DeMint won his seat and then, honoring his own pledge to serve no more than three terms, left the House in 2004 and won the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings with 54% of the vote.

Addressing the key issue in the ’08 campaign, DeMint says that Republicans can win on the energy issue, with an emphasis on new technology and exploration. He recalled how Jimmy Carter “shut down nuclear and nuclear recycling when [we] had a brand-new nuclear recycling plant in Varnville, S.C., that was a few weeks from opening, and it never opened. And we burn more coal and the people who wouldn’t let us have more nuclear power want to tax coal, and blame Bush.”

“We need to make sure they have the information on the energy voting records, because the Republicans were able to pass ANWR once, and Clinton vetoed it, or threatened to veto it. So we’ve come close, we even passed ANWR in different houses in different times, but never both the same houses in the same session.”

As to John McCain’s changing his long-held opposition to drilling in the Arctic Natural Wildlife Reserve (ANWR), the South Carolinian says: “I think he would be very smart if he did but I don’t think he will. I think if he throws in the national security issue and just the price of gasoline, the evidence is just so overwhelming, that any concerns about interfering with the pristine environment that 99.9% of Americans will never see will be put to rest.”

But, he quickly adds, “The challenge we have is, McCain has to be able to contrast with Barack Obama, and as long as his prohibition on ANWR stays in the mix, he’s not able to contrast. If we’re not willing to do this, we won’t separate ourselves from the irrational Socialist approach that you’re going to be hearing from the Democrats.”

For any doubts he expressed about McCain and his fall campaign, DeMint is one social conservative who feels the Republican nominee “has been very consistent on the linchpin social issue, which is life, pro-life. When we look at social conservatives, that issue is the best indicator. He certainly doesn’t have the position a lot of us would like on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, but he’s generally supportive of allowing states to set their own value system in that area. So on the big issues on the values side, and on the spending side and on the defense side, those are kind of the three legs of the conservative stool. He’s good.”

What Next?

As it was with Goldwater when he began to become known and admired by conservatives, DeMint is beginning to receive mention as a candidate for a national ticket — either in ’08 or beyond. Would he accept the vice presidential nod if McCain offers it to him?

“I’d have to ask my wife,” he replies with a laugh. “But it’s going to be a cold day in June before McCain asks me to be his VP. But I’d be honored to serve. I really do think he’s a great American hero. I’d love to have a chance to help shape some of the policies and move things in the direction they should go. But there are so many good Republicans that work closely with him that I would consider very, very unlikely he would consider me.”

He’s probably right on that score, as well as in his belief that McCain does not need a running mate to help him with South Carolina or DeMint’s part of the country if he runs on the right issues.

Nonetheless, there’s no question that conservatives and the national media will hear more from Jim DeMint in the coming years.