For GOP and tea party, a growing divide
People rally on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol Building on September 12, 2010 in Washington, DC. / Getty
When tea party kingmaker and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint announced Thursday that he was leaving the Senate, it prompted an outpouring of support from his colleagues. DeMint, they said, stood for an uncompromising conservative vision that had too often been corrupted; he "helped provide a powerful voice for conservative ideals in a town where those principles are too often hidden beneath business as usual," in the words of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. Even Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said that while he strongly disagreed with DeMint, he liked him and believes that DeMint acts "out of a sense of real belief. It's not political posturing."
Reid on DeMint: "I've always liked the guy"
But for members of the GOP establishment like McConnell, DeMint was also something else: A significant roadblock in their efforts to achieve a Senate majority. To be sure, DeMint championed staunch conservative Republican senators who have managed to get elected, among them Utah's Mike Lee, Kentucky's Rand Paul, and Texas' Ted Cruz. He was also an early financial backer of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is seen as one of the leading contenders for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.
Yet DeMint also backed candidates who lost races that the GOP establishment justifiably believed were eminently winnable: Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, Ken Buck in Colorado, Richard Mourdock in Indiana, Sharron Angle in Nevada. (DeMint did not formally back Angle until after she won her primary.) DeMint's willingness to bet on relatively conservative candidates in relatively moderate states frustrated many in the Republican establishment, some of whom believe that they might now control the Senate had DeMint and his allies not stepped in. DeMint also complicated Republican efforts to move legislation on the Senate floor, chafing at arrangements and legislation that Republican leaders viewed as pragmatic steps necessary to achieve larger goals.
There wasn't much those leaders could do to slow him down, however: DeMint has been a powerful fundraiser, helping raise more than $25 million for the Senate Conservatives Fund - the political action committee he founded - over the last two election cycles, according to the Associated Press. Republicans knew that if they engaged in overt criticism of DeMint and his true believer approach, they risked (1) angering the tea party movement that helped drive the GOP resurgence after President Obama's election in 2008 and (2) inviting a well-financed primary challenger that would affix them with the dreaded tag of "RINO," or Republican In Name Only.
DeMint's decision to leave the Senate for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in line with his views, signals that in the wake of Mr. Obama's reelection, the uneasy tea party/GOP alliance has come to at least a partial end. DeMint appears to have concluded that he has done all he can in "the battle of ideas" from within his party; his move to Heritage signals that he believes he can be more effective in pushing the GOP in a conservative direction by applying pressure from the outside.
The Republican establishment, meanwhile, appears to be going in the opposite direction. House Speaker John Boehner removed four tea party-aligned conservative Republicans from key committees this week; Boehner maintained that the decision "had nothing to do with ideology," but the members themselves didn't see it that way. One of the ousted lawmakers, Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, told Heritage on Tuesday that he was part of a "purge" driven by his unwillingness to go along with the leadership, according to Slate. (Huelskamp and another "purged" member voted against the Paul Ryan budget because they felt it didn't balance the budget quickly enough; all four of the "purged" lawmakers voted against last year's debt ceiling deal.) "It confirms, in my mind, Americans' deepest suspicions about Washington," Huelskamp said. "It's petty, it's vindictive, and if you have any conservative principles, you will be punished for it."
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