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Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Mike Lee of Utah could move to fill the void left by South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, who announced plans Thursday to resign from Congress to take the reigns of The Heritage Foundation.
Higher-profile tea party favorites, such as Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, are believed to have presidential aspirations and to be uninterested in building a political power base in Congress.
But Republican operatives said the tea-party-affiliated senators that DeMint leaves behind are hardly eager for another activist member in their ranks to be deemed their leader and enforcer on key legislative votes.
“Each have their own brand with their own motivations and their own goals they’d like to accomplish,” a senior Republican Senate aide said.
The Republican senators “who share his viewpoints didn’t like competing for attention or being told they were his gang, so this is probably OK with a lot of folks,” a second GOP Senate aide added.
The bench of conservatives who could take the baton from DeMint is deep, and many were elected in 2010 and 2012 at least partly because of his support. They include Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, the former president of the Club for Growth who this year succeeded DeMint as chairman of the conservative Senate GOP Steering Committee, and Sen.-elect Ted Cruz.
The incoming Texas freshman ran an insurgent primary campaign against the establishment favorite, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and is therefore viewed as a natural to pick up where DeMint left off. He received significant financial support from DeMint and the Club for Growth. But Cruz has accepted the post of vice chairman for grass-roots outreach at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, an odd move if his goal is to play the role of rabble-rouser from within.
That leaves Johnson, who last December lost his bid for conference vice chairman and has shown ambition to wield more influence, and Lee, who in 2010 ousted Bob Bennett in a GOP primary and who has followed in DeMint’s path by launching a political action committee to support his preferred primary candidates. Lee’s PAC has not had the effect of the Senate Conservatives Fund, an independent super PAC that started out as DeMint’s leadership PAC.
Republican sources say Johnson, a lifelong businessman, is more likely to focus on shaping legislative policy from his elected perch on Capitol Hill and to shy away from playing politics in GOP primaries. Lee, who focuses on constitutional issues, is viewed as the most likely to attempt to cut an outside path similar to DeMint’s, given that he represents a solid Republican state whose voters would likely grant him the latitude to pursue a national political agenda.
“Most importantly, he’s not running for president,” a Republican political operative said, discussing why Lee might fill DeMint’s shoes over the long term.
DeMint, a stalwart conservative who has grown more frustrated with the legislative process during his time in Congress, had minimal effect on the direction of legislation and political strategy inside the Republican Conference. Although not without friends and allies, his methods annoyed many of his colleagues. He never cared for Senate etiquette or mastered the art of relationship-building, which is often key to getting legislation approved.
But in electoral politics, DeMint raised several million dollars through his leadership PAC during the 2010 elections and leveraged his burgeoning popularity among conservative activists to help outsider candidates win GOP Senate primaries. DeMint was not always successful on this front, and his preferred candidates blew some otherwise easy general election contests, which rankled his fellow Senate Republicans. It’s here that DeMint’s exit might be noticed, unless another GOP senator can replicate his political network and fundraising prowess.
Republican operatives with relationships in the Senate expect each of the conservative rising stars to carve out a particular turf and distinguish themselves.
There is less certainty over whether any of them would attempt to influence the outcome of Senate primaries to the degree DeMint did in light of the growing concern from within the GOP that intraparty warfare over who would make the best nominee cost the party easy wins in 2010 and contributed to its loss of two seats in the 2012 elections.
“It’s likely that all of them will stake out positions because each of them has different conservative interests,” a former Republican Senate leadership aide said.