Illustration by Steve Brodner
On a Saturday this spring, Jim DeMint appears before a crowd in Manchester, New Hampshire, at an event called “A First in the Nation Freedom Forum.” The Republican senator from South Carolina gets three standing O’s—one just for stepping onstage. It’s at conservative gatherings like this, as well as back in his home state, that DeMint recharges after being inside the Beltway. He’s among his people.
“When I get discouraged in Washington, all I have to do is get out across America and talk to folks like you,” he says.
There couldn’t be a greater disconnect between the atmosphere in this room at Southern New Hampshire University and the reception DeMint gets in Washington. Depending on your perspective, the conservative lawmaker is either a brave champion for freedom or a bombastic showboater out for himself. He’s at once beloved by the grassroots Tea Party and immensely irritating to some of his Republican colleagues in the Senate.
DeMint made waves in the 2010 Senate elections, bucking his party’s leadership by raising a lot of money for antiestablishment candidates who many in his party thought couldn’t win. Sometimes the doubters were right. Sometimes he was. He backed Joe Miller in Alaska, Ken Buck in Colorado, Sharron Angle in Nevada, and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware—all losers, some more embarrassing than others. Some think DeMint’s gambles on fringe candidates are part of the reason the GOP didn’t take the Senate. But DeMint also proved prescient in other races, helping fund such upstarts as Florida’s Marco Rubio, Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, and Kentucky’s Rand Paul.
Inside the Beltway, DeMint is seen as breaching protocol in an institution that has great respect for seniority and decorum. When criticized, he swipes back at his Republican colleagues, calling them “weak-kneed,” saying things like “I don’t want to be here six more years with the same people I’m here with now.” Needless to say, this doesn’t help.
Which raises a question: Is Jim DeMint the most hated Republican in the Senate?
Next: Will DeMint run for president?