“The telephone system in the capitol actually crashed,” DeMint says.
“Our phones lit up,” recalls a former Re-publican leadership aide who has been critical of DeMint. The “amnesty” incident was instructive, the aide says, because, well before the emergence of the Tea Party, it demonstrated that a vocal minority in the Senate could fire up the American public and thereby change the national conversation.
After the 2008 elections, DeMint challenged the Senate hierarchy by introducing a radical slate of rules changes for his Republican colleagues, including term limits for many leadership positions and for senators sitting on the powerful Appropriations Committee. By this point, some of DeMint’s colleagues were sick of what they saw as his divisive and time-consuming tactics. DeMint writes in The Great American Awakening that during a meeting he was persuaded by other senators that one of his proposals was a bad idea and he attempted to withdraw it. But his colleagues wouldn’t let him back away. He had to stand in front of the room while a secret ballot revealed just how disliked his proposal was: 36 nays and only 5 yeas.
“The consensus was that they were really ridiculous ideas and that he needed to be taught a lesson,” recalls a staffer who attended that meeting. “It was clear he didn’t have much support, so the thought was let him do it—and then blast his ass.”
But DeMint has his own version of events like this one. He talks of being made to pay for speaking the truth, of being railroaded in the press by his Senate colleagues and needing to defend himself. He describes this period as “very painful,” characterized by a “constant effort by people to marginalize me.” At one point, he writes, when he was leading the weekly Senate Steering Committee lunches, only one colleague—former Nevada senator John Ensign—would sit next to him.
Does DeMint want to run for President next year? DeMint recently told the Hill that some people wanted him to run, and he couldn’t help but consider their wishes out of respect. Afterward, allies attempted to walk back his words. “He’s not going to run,” said someone familiar with the senator’s thinking. “It would literally take an act of God.”
DeMint has even suggested he won’t run for another Senate term in 2016. “I’m thinking of finishing my term and getting back to my country-music career,” he playfully demurs.
It’s possible DeMint’s goal is to be doing precisely what he’s doing now, and damn the consequences in Washington. His constituency isn’t the political elite or those influenced by it. It’s a swath of people who like him better the more he irritates the political establishment, a section of America nearly as disgusted with free-spending Republicans as it is with “socialist” Democrats. DeMint—who says that when he first started in advertising he had to teach himself to craft the emotional appeals that consumers (and voters) respond to—has hit upon a winning message.
“He has done something that I think may be a new model, which is to wield power from the outside, not the inside,” says GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway, a DeMint admirer who describes him as “fearless and guileless.” Rabble-rousing may not garner DeMint the influence that would help him pass legislation, but it may shift the conversation within the Senate Republican conference a few inches to the right. And that in turn enhances his brand, allowing him to continue to make speeches and fundraise and back more “outsider” candidates. All of which shifts the Republican conference a little more to the right. “He’s the marketing guy,” says DeMint’s former state director, Luke Byars. “He knows sometimes you have to throw a bigger rock in the pond to get big waves.”
Next: The 2009 emergence of the Tea Party