Jim DeMint was a force inside and outside the Senate during his nearly eight years in office, slowing legislation in Washington while bankrolling ultra-conservative candidates around the country.
But for every Marco Rubio he elevated to power, there was a Todd Akin right behind, and critics blame him for costing Republicans the Senate majority. Many were also upset with his destructive presence in negotiations between GOP leaders and President Obama, where he frequently threatened to block any and all deals.
Reviewing DeMint’s donations and endorsements through his Senate Conservatives Fund yields an inconsistent record.
In 2010, he backed the following candidates either through direct donations or independent expenditures on their behalf:
Senate: Sharron Angle (NV), Ken Buck (CO), Tom Coburn (OK), Chuck Devore (CA), Ron Johnson (WI), Ovide Lamontagne (NH), Mike Lee (UT), Joe Miller (AK), Christine O’Donnell (DE), Rand Paul (KY), John Raese (WV), Dino Rossi (WA), Marco Rubio (FL), Pat Toomey (PA), Michael Williams (TX)
House: Marlin Stutzman (IN).
Of the 15 in the Senate crop, all but Lamontagne and Devore won their primaries, many of which were highly competitive. Williams dropped out after incumbent Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison opted to stay in the Senate, reversing a previous decision. Lamontagne’s primary opponent, Kelly Ayotte, went on to win the general election and became a key supporter of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. On the House side, Stutzman lost his primary.
Among the primary winners, six also won their general elections: Coburn, Johnson, Lee, Paul, Rubio, and Toomey. All but Coburn were freshman, providing DeMint with a bumper crop of promising recruits. In particular, Rubio is considered a superstar and often discussed as a presidential candidate in 2016. Paul, another popular tea party politician, defeated Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) own personal choice in the primaries.
But others quickly flamed out. O’Donnell defeated popular former Gov. Mike Castle with DeMint’s late backing, turning a near-certain Republican pickup into a Democratic blowout. Buck lost in an upset to Michael Bennet in Colorado, thanks in part to what critics said were offensive statements about women and gays.
Angle was among the worst disasters that year, losing badly to a vulnerable Majority Leader Harry Reid and drawing national attention with her kookier statements. But unlike O’Donnell and Buck, DeMint only backed her after the primaries. Ditto with Miller in Alaska, who defeated incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary only to lose when she ran as an independent in the general election.
In 2012, the Senate Conservatives Fund backed only Senate candidates.
Senate: Ted Cruz (TX), Jeff Flake (AZ), Josh Mandel (OH), Richard Mourdock (IN), Mark Neumann (WI), Don Stenberg (NE), Daniel Bongino (MD), Deb Fischer (NE), Tom Smith (PA), George Allen (VA), Todd Akin (MO)
You might notice that there are two Nebraskans on that list. DeMint backed Stenberg in the primaries to the tune of $1.4 million, but then supported Fischer in the general election. Neumann lost his primary against former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson.
Cruz won his primary in an upset and coasted to a general election win. Fischer and Flake also won their respective Senate races. But Mourdock’s primary win over incumbent Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN) ended up costing Republicans an otherwise solid seat after he suggested rape-induced pregnancy was an example of divine will. While DeMint did not endorse Mourdock’s primary challenge, SCF donated $500,000 to Club For Growth, which did target Lugar.
DeMint did not endorse Akin in the primaries, but SCF helped keep his campaign afloat even after most Republican leaders from Romney down had disowned him and urged him to drop out of the race. He ended up losing to Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) by more than 15 points.
SCF also spent big money on races that weren’t particularly competitive. It devoted about $120,000 each in independent expenditures on Smith and Bongino. Smith lost to incumbent Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) by 9 points. Bongino lost by 26 points to Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD).
If DeMint had a mediocre record that year, he was hardly alone. As noted on the PAC’s website, its general election picks were the only GOP challengers to win. Establishment-favored candidates in states like Montana, North Dakota, and New Mexico all lost.
In addition to his record picking campaign winners, DeMint also engaged in a number of high-profile Senate fights. Arguably his biggest success was on earmarks, where he butted heads with McConnell by demanding a ban on the practice among Republicans. Although McConnell defended earmarks, DeMint rallied enough tea party support to make McConnell’s position untenable. Within two weeks of the 2010 election, McConnell backed DeMint’s earmarks ban, which ultimately ended fell short of passing.
But his most prolonged and intense battle was over health care, which DeMint famously called Obama’s “Waterloo.” And on that count, he lost big: conservative intransigence eventually led Democrats to muscle a bill through Congress with no Republican votes and, consequently, no major concessions to Republicans. Not only that, the threat of a primary challenge by groups like Demint’s led Arlen Specter to switch parties in 2009 and cast the deciding vote in the Senate.
Another of DeMint’s supposed victories already looks hollow in retrospect. By aggressively threatening Republicans who backed a debt ceiling compromise, DeMint helped scuttle Speaker John Boehner’s attempts to reach a “grand bargain” with Obama on taxes and spending. When they settled on a far more modest agreement with no revenues, DeMint looked like one of the big winners.
That win was premised on the GOP gaining more leverage down the line, however. Instead a newly re-elected Obama is looking well positioned to secure much bigger tax increases in fiscal cliff talks, which favor Democrats politically and structurally compared to the 2011 debt limit fight. And the GOP’s past obstructionism, personified by DeMint, has helped keep their popularity at toxic lows relative to the president.
In the end, though, DeMint’s overarching goal was to push the party to the right and replenish the Senate’s ranks with grassroots-friendly conservatives. It’s hard to argue he leaves Congress closer to his ideal than when he entered.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.