Jim DeMint: Leading the Right's Rebel Brigade

Senator Jim DeMint has harnessed Tea Party populism but infuriated GOP elders. Is he taking the Republican Party toward salvation — or destruction?

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Nigel Parry for TIME

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For all the glory of seeing some chosen candidates elected, DeMint has also endured withering scorn for elevating a few dark horses who went on to blow winnable Senate races. In Colorado, DeMint supported Ken Buck over a party-backed primary rival, only to see Buck go down. More notoriously, DeMint endorsed Delaware's Christine O'Donnell just before her shocking primary upset over moderate Republican Mike Castle; O'Donnell's Democratic opponent beat her by 16 points. DeMint also enthusiastically supported three other Tea Party heroes immediately after they'd taken down GOP incumbents, to the dismay of the party machine: Mike Lee of Utah, who toppled three-term Senator Robert Bennett in a state-party convention vote (and who calls DeMint "a mentor"); Joe Miller of Alaska, who beat Senator Lisa Murkowski in a primary but lost to her general-election write-in effort; and Nevada's Sharron Angle, who beat another Establishment primary pick but couldn't take down Senate majority leader Harry Reid.

"Extremists cost the Republicans three seats," says Specter, citing Colorado, Nevada and Delaware. DeMint shrugs off such criticisms by insisting that sending a wake-up call to the party is worth losing a few seats in the short term. "I'd rather have 30 Marco Rubios in the Senate than 60 Arlen Specters," DeMint told a conservative audience earlier this year. And he adds of his earmark victory, "If we'd had Specter, Crist [and defeated Kentucky Republican Senate primary contender] Trey Grayson, it wouldn't have passed." Still, the Senator concedes that his quest for party purity has its drawbacks. "It's been painful," he says. "A lot of friendships that are very important to me with fellow Republicans are very strained right now."

The Next Battles
The earmark victory fresh behind him, DeMint is sharpening his sword for new confrontations. When Congress votes early next year to raise the national debt limit so the U.S. can keep borrowing, DeMint says he will insist on adding a balanced-budget provision and vote no otherwise. "I've been fighting spending since I've been in Congress, so I don't feel a responsibility to vote for an increase in the debt limit," he says. "These clowns who have been voting for more spending ... they're going to have to step up to the plate and vote for it." And if Obama won't accept a budget-balancing amendment? "I think we're going to have to force a showdown with the President," he says. Given that the possibility of a default of the national debt is on the line, such brinkmanship makes some in the GOP nervous.

Looking further ahead, DeMint is hoping for a debate about everything government does, including discussion of possible overhauls of Social Security and Medicare from government-run systems into programs based on vouchers and individual choice. Even as he calls for smaller deficits, he wants a permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts for all earners. (And while he has recently downplayed social issues, DeMint is as conservative as they come in that regard. Witness his view that gay people or sexually active single women should be barred from teaching in public schools.)

Such ambitious goals may delight hard-core Republicans and many Tea Party activists. But even voters who fret about spending and debt tend to make exceptions for education, Social Security and Medicare. DeMint himself can say that Medicare spending must be restrained and then in the same interview bash health care reform for reducing the program's growth by $500 billion. (He says he reconciles this apparent contradiction by opposing any cuts for today's seniors but supporting longer-term changes.)

With Obama in the White House and Democrats in control of the Senate, DeMint won't see his vision put into effect anytime soon. But he's sure to keep his GOP colleagues off balance, especially as another election approaches. "This is just the beginning!" he told the crowd gathered outside the Capitol, adding that "2012 is going to make what just happened look small if we continue what we started." After his remarks, DeMint was grabbed by an adoring May Ann Haas, a homemaker, 61, who got up at 6:30 in Scranton, Pa., in order to hear him speak. "We've got your back," Haas told him.

Jim DeMint knows that. And the Republican Party establishment now knows it too.

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