The marriage of Sen. Jim DeMint and The Heritage Foundation looks poised to raise the political influence of both the man and the think tank.
As a rank-and-file senator, the South Carolinian has long sought to make the Republican Conference into a group much like himself: uncompromisingly conservative and more interested in ideological purity than bipartisan accomplishments.
From the helm of Heritage, DeMint will have a louder megaphone from which to preach and impose that viewpoint on the party at large, and he will be able to extend his reach far beyond the Senate.
Appearing on Rush Limbaugh’s radio program Thursday, DeMint joked about ousting Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, from his post, an early sign that GOP congressional leaders may be in his cross hairs.
Asked if Boehner was forcing him out, a reference to conservative House members being stripped of committee assignments this week, DeMint quipped, “It might work a little bit the other way, Rush.”
On CNN’s “Situation Room,” DeMint said “there’s no question” he would be more influential at Heritage than as a U.S. senator.
The news of DeMint’s intention to resign in January came as a surprise to many on Capitol Hill, but conservatives embraced the move.
“I think that Jim DeMint’s been a great asset for the conservatives up here. He’s elected a lot of new constitutional conservatives and the other thing is Heritage has a big microphone,” said tea-party-backed Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Republicans off the Hill also said the move will be a boon for the 39-year-old research institute. “It’s just like having a think tank run by me and then handing it off to Ben Affleck. You know, all of a sudden it has a real profile,” said Jeffrey Taylor, a Republican lobbyist at U.S. Government Relations International.
“Today we have combined the most powerful and effective conservative think tank in America with America’s most principled and effective conservative leader,” Heritage Chairman Thomas A. Saunders told staff. “I like to say we are turbocharging our already powerful engine.”
In an interview announcing the move, DeMint told The Wall Street Journal that he does not intend to politicize The Heritage Foundation, but some Republican lobbyists worry that the senator known for bucking Republican leadership on Capitol Hill could be just as disruptive to the party in his new role outside Congress.
“I’m hoping they broaden the conservative horizon and become the catalyst for developing new ideas based on the principles, rather than attack Republicans for being insufficiently conservative,” said Jack Howard, vice chairman of Wexler Walker Public Policy Associates.
The move to install DeMint at the top publicly solidifies the think tank’s gradual move to the right. Heritage established an advocacy arm in 2010 in an effort to capitalize on tea party enthusiasm and has since become an increasingly prominent player in the national political debate, weighing in on most major legislative issues and causing consternation for House GOP leaders, in particular, when the group decides to “key vote” an issue.
“I don’t know the inner workings or whether this is a big grand goal that they’re going to be more political,” Paul said.
Outgoing National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn of Texas said he looks forward to DeMint’s new role, even as he acknowledged that the two have had their battles over candidate recruitment in the past.
“I don’t think Jim’s going away,” Cornyn said. “I look forward to continuing to work with him. You know, the truth is Jim and I agree as conservatives on 95 percent of the issues. It’s — a lot of it has to do with tactics to advance the conservative cause through the … electoral process.”
Cornyn and DeMint sparred over Senate primaries in 2010, with DeMint favoring more conservative candidates than the NRSC. The two reached an agreement to avoid a recurrence of the feud in the 2012 cycle, after Senate Republicans lost what were considered otherwise winnable seats in Nevada, Delaware and Colorado.
Former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles E. Schumer said that, in his view, DeMint’s efforts ultimately helped Democrats in 2010 and again in 2012.
“Most elections in most states are won in the center. I always liked him personally,” Schumer said. “But certainly his effect on the political system may have been more beneficial to Democrats than Republicans.”
Cornyn noted that DeMint’s move to influence Congress from outside the building highlights the rise of political action committees and advocacy organizations. When he takes the helm at Heritage in April, fundraising will be squarely within his job description. And if DeMint uses Heritage like he used the Senate Conservatives Fund — which spent $13.8 million this cycle — incumbent GOP senators may feel his wrath. DeMint founded the super PAC but no longer as a role with it.
In particular, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who is up for re-election in 2014, has often been at odds with DeMint, but the South Carolinian has not been able to do much to push back. Heritage, however, may give DeMint new access to a world of donors not previously known to him. Heritage Action, organized under tax code 501(c)(4) as a tax- exempt social welfare organization, raised more than $3 million in its first year of operation, its tax returns show. In 2012, it spent $227,000 on independent expenditures.