“I want to sincerely congratulate Senator DeMint on this award. Fully aware that Human Events cannot give the award to me every year, Human Events has made the only other choice they could make. Tough, courageous, rock-solid and unflinching, Jim DeMint charts the way for all of us in truly historic times.”
— Rush Limbaugh
Conservative of the Year, 2007
He did not start out a conservative fighter. He was no warrior when he first arrived on Capitol Hill in 1999. Jim DeMint had replaced Rep. Bob Inglis in South Carolina’s 4th Congressional District. Inglis had vacated the seat to run a losing race against Senator Ernest Hollins.
DeMint’s tenure started out like that of most freshmen congressmen — anonymous and committed to bringing home the bacon, much like Rep. Inglis who, when Senator DeMint moved up to the Senate, moved back into his old House seat until the tea party movement threw him out in 2010.
Something happened to DeMint though. In a National Journal article last month, Michael Hirsh fingered the fight over No Child Left Behind, which DeMint originally opposed, but then ultimately supported.
Among the conservatives who cooled on Bush was Sen. Jim DeMint. DeMint recalled that Bush told him, at a White House meeting back in 2001, when the South Carolinian was a second-term House member, that Bush would fight for “flexibility” for state charter schools as part of his new federal education program, No Child Left Behind, according to a DeMint aide, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the press. DeMint was then far from the small-government agitator and tea party champion he has become. But the Bush plan disturbed DeMint, and he decided to vote no—until the president called him in and said, “Jim, I promise to get this [state flexibility] back in conference. But I need you not to make an issue of it on the House floor,” the aide recalled. “DeMint said, ‘OK, Mr. President, I’ll trust you.’ But Bush didn’t even lift a finger to get it in conference.”
For DeMint, it was the beginning of a decade of disappointments in his president and his party, as he gradually became more alienated from the GOP leadership.
After the No Child Left Behind incident, DeMint started teaming up with other conservative fighters like Mike Pence (R-IN) to fight back. Congressman Mike Pence tells Human Events, “Senator Jim DeMint is a force of nature in the conservative movement. His steadfast and consistent stand in defense of fiscal discipline, a strong national defense and traditional moral values is unparalleled in Washington, DC and should give hope to millions of conservatives across the country as they look for conservative leadership in our nation’s capital.”
Elected as social conservatives who were fiscally responsible, the GOP under George W. Bush had largely become pro-life statists with even Fred Barnes championing the idea of “big government conservatives” in the Weekly Standard. DeMint had had enough.
In 2004, Jim DeMint ran for the United States Senate for the seat vacated by Ernest Hollings. He ran against Inez Tenenbaum, the state schools superintendent. Decisively beating her by over 9%, DeMint’s win put both of South Carolina’s Senate seats in the hands of Republicans for the first time since Reconstruction.
With George Bush in the White House and the Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, it might have been difficult for most Republicans to shine, but DeMint ran as a conservative first and was ready to fight in the Senate.
He overcame his addiction to earmarks and began fighting pork, whether it came from his party or the Democrats. He aggressively opposed President Bush’s immigration reforms. He opposed TARP and the auto industry bailout. He was the lone no vote on a number of budgetary matters, including military appropriations because they were so loaded with pork. People started noticing.
Through the devastations of the 2006 and 2008 elections, DeMint recognized the GOP needed a new start. Calling themselves fiscally responsible, DeMint saw the GOP backing candidates who were coming to Washington campaigning as conservatives, but actually voting as something less than conservative. He decided to take action and launched the Senate Conservatives Fund (“SCF”). He told an interviewer, “I’ve just found that the Senate is going to be the last place to change, and if I wait for them to act, America will be in a ditch.”
It is not unusual for members of Congress to set up leadership PAC’s. It is, however, quite unusual for a member of Congress to use his leadership PAC in open defiance of his party leadership and in opposition to the chosen candidates of the party. Jim DeMint not only did that, he went all in across the country.
The first battle for DeMint came in Pennsylvania. He told Arlen Specter he would be supporting Pat Toomey. That conversation is widely pinpointed as the moment Specter decided to leave the GOP. Specter would go on to lose the 2010 Democratic nomination in Pennsylvania and Toomey, receiving $480,178.00 from SCF and DeMint, is now Pennsylvania’s Senator-Elect.
As much as that may have ruffled feathers with DeMint’s Republican colleagues, no one could have foreseen the Florida fight.
Rumors had circulated that some members of the Senate were no longer enjoying the Senate because of people like Jim DeMint and their quest to have alleged conservatives actually be conservative. “I don’t think we have learned much from the  election in terms of what people want to see .… We have the same gridlock,” said an anonymous senator to Roll Call. The senator continued with the lament, “We need someone who speaks from the center.”
Press reports fingered Senator Mel Martinez (R-FL) as the anonymous senator about the time Martinez decided to throw in the towel. Martinez would neither seek re-election nor serve out his full term. Immediately, Washington Republicans rallied around Florida Governor Charlie Crist. The National Republican Senatorial Committee let it be known that should Governor Crist get in, the NRSC would endorse him.
Jim DeMint was having none of it. The former Speaker of the Florida House, Marco Rubio, had already entered the race. An attractive Latino from South Florida with a conservative record and string of speeches tailor made for the YouTube generation, DeMint declared the Senate Conservatives Fund would back Rubio, ultimately contributing $839,507.00 to his election effort.
Rubio went on to win a three-man race and would never have been in the position to do so but for Jim DeMint. Senator-Elect Rubio, noting DeMint’s essential help, told Human Events, “Jim DeMint is a champion of conservative principles in the Senate, and he’s a courageous advocate of leaders who are willing to fight for them. And because of Senator DeMint’s early support of my candidacy, when few believed we had a chance, I will be one of those new senators working to keep America exceptional.”
DeMint and his Senate Conservatives Fund had a major, positive impact in the 2010 elections. DeMint backed Chuck DeVore lost the California primary and Colorado District Attorney Ken Buck lost the general election in Colorado. But DeMint’s SCF saw both Toomey and Rubio win, along with Mike Lee in Utah, Rand Paul in Kentucky, and Ron Johnson in Wisconsin.
Senator-Elect Mike Lee tells Human Events, “His endorsement and support proved to be priceless to me and many other conservative candidates around the country.” Senator-Elect Rand Paul echoed his new colleague, telling us, “[Senator DeMint’s] Senate Conservatives Fund helped me and other conservatives nationwide get elected when the establishment said it couldn’t be done.”
If Jim DeMint had only moved the Senate Republican Conference to the right in 2010, it’d be enough to make him a stellar pick for Conservative of the Year. But that’s not all he did.
Starting before George Bush left office in January 2009, DeMint was already in a fighting mood over TARP, the auto industry bailout, and immigration reform. In between all of those, however, was earmarks. They may seem a small issue in and of themselves, but earmarks have a way of making bad legislation pass as a form of congressional bribery.
Along with John McCain and Tom Coburn, Jim DeMint rallied conservatives in Washington to push the Senate Republicans to give up earmarks after the 2010 election. The effort was successful and headed into 2011, Republicans in the Senate, like their colleagues in the House, will be earmarks free.
Then there is Jim DeMint and the Senate Democrats. Let’s just say that while his Republican colleagues may sometimes bristle over DeMint’s conservative views, the Senate Democrats become downright apoplectic.
Right before Christmas 2009, Senate Democrats rushed Obamacare to the floor of the Senate for a vote. They thought, having handled all the Republican amendments, they had a clear path to the vote. Except DeMint was having none of it. With the Senate Rules on his side, DeMint insisted the Senate vote on whether the individual mandate was constitutional.
In addition to tying the Senate in knots as Senators were scrambling to leave for Christmas Eve before the blizzard of 2009 hit, DeMint’s action caused some painful votes for senators like Russ Feingold, up for re-election in 2010. Ultimately, the Senate Democrats voting that the individual mandate was constitutional, but the vote helped set up the fight over the individual mandate nicely.
Senator DeMint closed out 2009 and opened 2010 with his finger directly in the eye of the Obama Administration. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had attempted to detonate a bomb on a Christmas flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. Though unsuccessful, he’d made it onto the flight and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano famously declared that the system had worked.
DeMint made sure the Senate system worked and promptly put a hold on Erroll Southers, Barack Obama’s nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration. Southers’s nomination had sailed through two committees under the radar and was headed to the Senate floor for confirmation. DeMint’s hold drew publicity and a public rebuke from the Washington chattering class. He didn’t care.
The hold and the attacks on DeMint from the White House because of the hold raised Southers’s profile so much someone finally found a video of Erroll Southers claiming “Christian identity” groups like the Ku Klux Klan were a bigger threat to national security than muslim extremists.
Southers withdrew his nomination. DeMint got the scalp. Senator DeMint then proceeded to place a hold on Marisa Demeo, who Barack Obama nominated to be on the D.C. Superior Court. According to the Legal Times, DeMint placed the hold because of Demeo “history of leftist activism.”
DeMint has also entangled Democrats by routinely putting holds on legislation winding through the Senate destined for unanimous consent vote. According to a quirk of Senate rules, any senator can put holds on legislation that, despite broad success, must have the permission of individual senators to proceed. To overcome the hold without a senator’s permission, legislation must be debated for thirty hours and receive 60 votes.
While DeMint frequently will drop his hold once the case has been made to him about its merits, Democrats have spent 2010 venting to news outlets like the Huffington Post. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) told the Huffington Post, “When I have had amendments on a couple of occasions, I have been told: ‘Absolutely, we in the Republican leadership are fine but you are going to have to clear it with Jim DeMint because he has a standing hold on everything.’ So I’m not sure this is a real change from what he has been doing.”
Rankling Democrats further, DeMint concluded 2010 by telling the chiefs of staff of all the senators that if they were not timely with year end legislation DeMint would put holds on everything. They knew he wasn’t kidding.
If the Senate Republicans and Senate Democrats both get aggravated by DeMint, they have nothing compared to the contempt of DeMint by left-wing interest groups. Making DeMint into the boogeyman in the way the right used to use Teddy Kennedy, left wing groups have a history of being outraged by DeMint.
In October 2010, DeMint spoke to a group of pastors in South Carolina making the case to them that economic issues and out of control spending are moral issues. DeMint also said that while he did not want the federal government to push his religion and morals, he also did not want the federal government to take away or stop local communities from having the local mores of the community upheld. As an example, one sure to live in infamy among left-wing interest groups, DeMint said local schools should be able to decide if they want, for example, gay teachers or unwed, pregnant teachers.
The point was about local choices and morals. The left did not care. The National Organization for Women called DeMint a “sexual bigot”. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force demanded an apology. DeMint held his ground.
DeMint’s position did nothing but gain him support in South Carolina and across the conservative base.
On November 3, 2010, Jim DeMint wrote an open letter to tea-party backed candidates in the Wall Street Journal. He advised, “Co-option is coercion. Washington operates on a favor-based economy and for every earmark, committee assignment or fancy title that’s given, payback is expected in return. The chits come due when the roll call votes begin. This is how big-spending bills that everyone always decries in public always manage to pass with just enough votes. But someone can’t be bribed if they aren’t for sale.”
The letter made a number of his Republican colleagues in the Senate furious. But the letter also put Senate Democrats on notice that the incoming Senate Republicans were not going to roll over. DeMint, more so than most other politicians, fully understands the tea party movement because he largely shares their world view.
Though surely unintended, Senator DeMint’s colleague from South Carolina in the Senate, Lindsey Graham, paid Jim DeMint probably the ultimate compliment two weeks ago. Criticizing the Senate Republicans for rolling over so easily on all of the Demcrats’ last minute lame duck legislation, Graham said, “I can understand the Democrats being afraid of the new Republicans; I can’t understand Republicans being afraid of the new Republicans.”
Talk radio host and author Mark Levin tells Human Events, “Jim DeMint has more political courage than any other member of the Senate. He understands America’s dire situation and actually wants to save her. He deserves our sincere appreciation and support.” California Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, who DeMint backed in the California Senate primary, says, “Senator DeMint possesses that uncommon combination of Constitutional principle and political effectiveness and he has surrounded himself with staff who also have those twin attributes rarely seen in tandem in Washington.”
No one would fear the incoming Senate freshman but for Jim DeMint. His willingness to recruit conservatives to the Senate and tie his own workplace in knots makes him the 2010 Conservative of the Year.