Sen. Jim DeMint may be attracting a lot of national attention as a tea party favorite, but the strict conservative philosophy the South Carolina Republican espouses for his party is not sitting so well in his home state these days.
DeMint has taken pains recently to defend his 4-year-old pledge to oppose earmarks, after the Senate Appropriations Committee snubbed fellow South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham's attempt to secure a relatively modest $400,000 earmark for the Port of Charleston.
"What you're hearing [in the state] is: the ideology of the tea party and catering to that movement will come at the expense of jobs in South Carolina," said Chris Drummond, a South Carolina GOP strategist who formerly worked for Gov. Mark Sanford.
DeMint has made national headlines by using his Senate Conservatives Fund to back many upstart tea party candidates who have won GOP primaries over National Republican Senatorial Committee picks who are seen as less pure on conservative principles.
But some critics have said DeMint's positions are getting in the way of keeping state businesses competitive. "The port is the hub of economic activity for the whole state of South Carolina," Drummond said. "It is the job of a U.S. Senator to make these difficult decisions on behalf of the entire state, and this is something you want to have a united front on."
Indeed, the lack of a unified position from the two South Carolina Senators appears to be at least partly to blame for the decision by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development to deny Graham the earmark in this year's bill.
The flap appears to have opened a rift between DeMint and Graham, who has been criticized by DeMint's tea party friends as not conservative enough.
Both have been careful not to disparage each other publicly, but Graham recently warned in the Charleston Regional Business Journal that "this port could die, and this state's economy could be in the ditch forever" without the $400,000 study on dredging the port to accommodate larger ships coming through an expanded Panama Canal in 2014.
He also told the Greenville News that the lack of unity in the delegation is the reason he hasn't been able to secure the money, even though he was able to win other earmarks for the state on his own.
Graham told Roll Call he supports DeMint's push for earmark reform, but "I just want to make sure that, until that day comes, South Carolina is not left out."
Subcommittee Chairman Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said the support of two Senators gives a project more weight with a committee. "In cases where you have a state where one asks for an earmark, the other opposes all earmarks, that makes it a more difficult project to fund," he said.
The office of subcommittee ranking member Bob Bennett (R-Utah) also told the Greenville News that the port was denied funding in part because "there was no request at all from Sen. DeMint." DeMint allies point out that Bennett recently lost his primary to a DeMint-backed tea party candidate.
Many earmark opponents argue that funds will continue to flow to important local projects without earmarks, with decisions based on need rather than political muscle. In a statement provided to Roll Call, DeMint defended his stance and said it's absurd to argue that his policy of refusing to request earmarks caused the port to lose federal dollars.
"It's ridiculous and illogical to say that after four years of not requesting earmarks that suddenly this is the reason they denied funding for a national priority like the Charleston port," DeMint said. "Folks in South Carolina know that the Democrats are in charge and they are the ones choosing to hurt South Carolina's most important port and instead wasting billions on a failed jobs stimulus."
He added, "Appropriators can't pretend they are funding the nation's top priorities when they keep spending taxpayer money based on which party is in power and who's on the committee."
In a Sept. 19 opinion piece intended to rebut a spate of criticism by newspaper editorial boards, bloggers and business leaders, DeMint wrote in the Charleston Post and Courier that the port's future is "imperiled by an unfair earmarking process." He said he is writing legislation to reform the way the Army Corps of Engineers selects projects, as well as how port dredging is funded. Most Army Corps funding is directed by earmarks.
DeMint also recently argued that his push to elect more conservatives will help his cause. "We're close to changing a system that's bankrupting the country," he told the Greenville News.
Charleston County GOP Chairwoman Lin Bennett said she thinks the criticism of DeMint has been unfair, noting that primary voters recently chose another earmark opponent — Tim Scott — to be the nominee for the 1st district, which includes the Port of Charleston. Scott, who is likely to win in the heavily Republican district, would replace retiring GOP Rep. Henry Brown, who bucked his party leadership this year by ignoring its no-earmark pledge to push for money for the study in the House version of the measure.
"Earmarks are perceived to be special-interest money," Lin Bennett said, adding that it should be the state government's responsibility to fund projects at the port.
But Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who noted he has been labeled the "most conservative" by major publications and right-leaning groups, said anti-earmark crusaders such as DeMint do not understand their responsibility, as outlined in the U.S. Constitution, to control the purse strings.
"The most important thing for a conservative to understand is not just that it's your Constitutional obligation, but that if you don't do it, it doesn't save anything," Inhofe said last week. "If you don't ask for it for your state, it goes right back to the bureaucracy."
Inhofe added that Dorgan's rule of thumb for projects requested by two Senators is a good one. "Honestly, I think there's merit in the idea that all the delegation — both Senators and a Member of the House in the appropriate district — should agree this is what we need. Obviously, if they don't agree, it makes it that much harder to do it," he said.
Several South Carolina political operatives and observers declined to speak on the record for this article but agreed that DeMint's stance threatens to create a rift with the business community. The state Chamber of Commerce recently endorsed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Vincent Sheheen over tea party favorite and GOP nominee Nikki Haley.
"I know for a fact that Sen. DeMint is getting an earful from very large upstate corporations," Drummond said.
Another Senate GOP source noted, "This is an example of where ideology may have some consequences."
Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce Chairman Bobby Pearce said most people in South Carolina "disagree with the earmark process and the way it has led us as a country to financial ruin." But Pearce still argued that the Port of Charleston needs federal money because the state cannot fund a harbor that is managed by the federal government.
Pearce said DeMint recently sat down with chamber members and was told, "We don't pretend to understand Washington. We don't pretend to understand the earmark process. All we know is we need your help in securing this appropriation." Pearce added that DeMint was asked to do so in a way that would not go against his principles.
"We're appreciative because we know he is looking for other solutions," he said.