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Sen. Jim DeMint’s Senate successor has already been announced, but the influential political action committee he founded has no plans to replace him.
The Senate Conservatives Fund helped vault the junior senator from South Carolina to the national stage when he founded it in 2008. But while DeMint’s resignation in January re-creates a vacuum that he filled just a few years ago, his former PAC is willfully moving on without a leader.
“This is actually what Sen. DeMint always wanted,” SCF Executive Director Matt Hoskins told CQ Roll Call. “Our idea from the start was to nationalize candidates and to raise real money for them by harnessing the combined power of the grass roots.”
In 2010, the SCF raised $9 million, spent $1.9 million in independent expenditures, bundled $5.6 million for candidates and had $100,000 in direct contributions. The group boosted those totals during the 2012 cycle to $16 million raised, $3.2 million in IE spending, $10.6 million in bundled contributions for candidates and $55,000 in direct contributions.
“He never wanted SCF to be about him. It was always about the candidates,” Hoskins added.
With a mission of electing “principled conservatives” who believe in limited government, the SCF has been at the epicenter of the fight between tea party conservatives and establishment Republicans over the past two cycles and has a record of high-profile wins and losses.
DeMint, who has emerged as a conservative seal of approval for candidates across the country, was an early supporter of and believer in Florida’s Marco Rubio, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz of Texas when all three men were heavy underdogs in their primary contests. All three won their primary and general elections. But in 2010, the senator and the SCF also supported Ken Buck in Colorado and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware — two seats that would likely be in Republican hands today if the party had a different nominee.
A leaderless Senate Conservatives Fund was in the works this summer, well before the senator’s surprise announcement that he is resigning to move to The Heritage Foundation.
DeMint originally filed Senate Conservatives Fund as a leadership PAC with the Federal Election Commission on April 15, 2008, about three and a half years after he was elected to the Senate. But on July 1 of this year, the SCF amended its organizational statement and disassociated itself as DeMint’s leadership PAC. At the same time, Hoskins started an affiliated super PAC called Senate Conservatives Action.
The moves not only declared the SCF’s independence but also allowed the group to accept contributions over the regular limits in order to boost Cruz with a $500,000 ad buy in the final weeks of his runoff against wealthy Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
In DeMint’s wake, the goal is for the SCF to be seen “as an organization driven by a mission rather than a personality,” Hoskins explained, by inspiring more senators to be involved in the decision-making and fundraising while simultaneously building on the group’s base of 115,000 donating members (who give an average contribution of $45), instead of being dependent on a handful of wealthy donors.
Even through the structural change, the SCF will keep much of its endorsement process intact. “We’ll interview candidates, research their records and seek input from respected conservatives inside and outside the Senate,” said Hoskins, who worked as DeMint’s chief of staff in the House and legislative director in the Senate. Hoskins first volunteered for the SCF when it began in 2008, then split time between the personal office and the PAC until he went to work full time for the group in 2011. The SCF staff also includes a finance director, administrator and Web developer to go along with vendors who produce direct mail and television ads.
To survive over the long term, the SCF will have to cultivate its grass-roots base, including continuing to solicit feedback from members during the endorsement process, and rely on other senators to help without being offered a prime spotlight.
“We’re confident others will step up to fill his shoes,” said Hoskins, who wouldn’t speculate on specific senators that will be involved. There is a group of GOP senators that look like a natural fit to help including Rubio, Paul, Cruz and Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, as well as DeMint’s replacement, Rep. Tim Scott.
But helping the SCF is not without risk, even though it elevated DeMint’s profile. “He took his licks from the Republican leadership who despised his efforts to shake up the Senate club,” according to Hoskins.
When DeMint’s standards put him at odds with establishment Republicans in Florida, Kentucky, Delaware and Colorado a couple of years ago and Republicans lost the latter pair, conservative groups received much of the blame.
Ultimately, the goal is to support “conservative candidates who can win,” Hoskins said. But there is also a tangential motive that despises the anointing of candidates. “We’ll also stand ready to back underdogs when the establishment plays favorites and works against viable conservatives.”
There is a degree of pragmatism in the SCF process. The group didn’t get involved in this year’s Missouri and Indiana Senate races until after Rep. Todd Akin and state Treasurer Richard E. Mourdock, respectively, secured the GOP nomination. The same thing happened with Republican Sharron Angle in Nevada in 2010.
But with or without DeMint, the rift between conservative groups, such as the SCF, and groups such as the National Republican Senatorial Committee isn’t going away anytime soon.
“I’ve learned that we just have to ignore the critics and push forward with the best candidates we can find,” Hoskins said.
Correction: The photo caption on an earlier version of this story misstated the name of the group Demint founded. It is the Senate Conservataives Fund.