DeMint’s resignation, effective in January, took most everyone on the Hill by surprise. He will take the helm of The Heritage Foundation in April, and one GOP lobbyist said the move was akin to bringing in the star power of Ben Affleck.
“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.