For the Republicans battling over their party’s 2012 presidential nomination, South Carolina is the gateway to the White House. The state has picked the GOP nominee every year since it began holding the first-in-the-South primary in 1980.
And for this year’s crop of contenders, including Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, Jim DeMint, the state’s junior senator and unapologetic Tea Party booster, may hold the key to its sizable block of conservative voters in 2012.
“Senator DeMint is the gold standard for conservatism in South Carolina and would be the most coveted endorsement by far,” says Rep. Trey Gowdy, one of South Carolina’s four GOP freshmen in the House, who has known DeMint since they both ran for office in 1998.
“Whoever he endorses, if he endorses anybody, won’t have to answer any more questions about their conservative credentials. It gives a candidacy a certain gravitas to be able to say, ‘The most conservative senator in the U.S. Senate says I’m conservative enough.’”
DeMint’s influence was on display this week in Columbia, S.C., when a parade of presidential hopefuls showed up for a Labor Day “Freedom Forum” on such issues as conservative first principles, American exceptionalism, and, of course, the Constitution. With the exception of Perry, who skipped the event to deal with the Texas wildfires, all the top-tier candidates trekked to the state’s capital to convince DeMint that they are the real deal—and worthy of his all-important endorsement.
“I see Sen. DeMint as a voice of truth,” Herman Cain, the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO and radio host, told me after taking his turn on stage. “He’s not afraid to speak out and speak up, not afraid to challenge the system.”
The other contenders were equally glowing while DeMint held court—smiling at him, nodding, agreeing with and praising him as they delivered their answers.
“Obviously the candidates here are falling over themselves to get his endorsement,” Rep. Mick Mulvaney, another House freshman, said after the event. “It does give a candidate that stamp of approval if they have Jim in their corner.”
Like DeMint, Mulvaney backed Romney in 2008, when John McCain scored a surprise upset here. But unlike DeMint, Mulvaney came out for Perry on Monday.
“Romney’s a tremendous candidate and a great guy and I love him, but we could not convince him to stay in the race in 2008, so I think he’s going to have to deal with that,” Mulvaney explained.
He also described DeMint as a hugely powerful influence in the 2012 campaign and the “standard bearer” for conservatism nationally.
“You ask yourself if there was anyone filling that role before he did, and there wasn’t anyone,” he says. “There was a void there. In the Senate, especially.”
It’s an unlikely role for DeMint, who was born in Greenville and whose single mother started the “DeMint Academy of Dance and Decorum” to make ends meet. She frequently asked her children, including Jim, to fill in as her clients’ ballroom dance partners in a pinch.
Decades later, after a non-eventful career in marketing and a dozen years in Congress, Jim DeMint is suddenly the master of the political dance in Washington, but the decorum—such as bowing to traditions of seniority, leadership and party-first politics—has not come as easily.
DeMint spent three terms in the House and 6½ years in the Senate as a staunchly conservative, but mostly low-profile, member of the South Carolina delegation. But when the small-government Tea Party movement mushroomed in 2010, the like-minded DeMint stepped out to make the unprecedented move of backing conservative Republican candidates without the blessing, and often over the objections, of GOP leaders in Washington.
In several cases, he and his Senate Conservatives Fund chose challengers running against sitting GOP senators or leadership-backed candidates—essentially an act of fratricide in Washington’s tradition-bound circles, but an act of courage among conservative activists hungry for authenticity.
Several of DeMint’s picks, including freshmen senators Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Pat Toomey, swept to victory, both over the establishment-backed Republicans and their Democratic opponents. But others, like Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, collapsed under the weight of her baggage and ceded the seat to the Democrats.
DeMint had more victories than losses in 2010, but his moves cost him dearly back in Washington, where party leaders kept him from a prized seat on the finance committee in the months after the elections.
Even today, GOP leadership aides argue that DeMint hurt the party more than he helped in 2010, when he spent money to unseat safe GOP senators in red states and refused to let good be good enough for Republicans in blue states. They say DeMint’s drive for ideological purity produced conservatives like O’Donnell, who could never win among moderate voters.
But DeMint rejects the idea that being conservative and being electable are mutually exclusive and says he wants to go after people who did not vote in 2010, but are more frustrated than ever with Washington.
GOP leadership aides still argue that DeMint hurt the party more than he helped in 2010.
“The idea that a conservative cannot win in any state is ridiculous,” he told The Daily Beast. “Electability is going to come from someone who is honest, who has character, who has courage, and who has the skills to run our country. I don’t think we have to create some kind of hybrid, watered-down message to win those people who want more from government."
With that in mind, DeMint is doubling down in 2012 by increasing his PAC’s spending from $9 million to $15 million and continuing to court the men and woman vying for his conservative stamp of approval.
Whether he’ll bet on Romney again is anyone’s guess, but the former Massachusetts governor clearly can use a boost. Although Romney originally turned down DeMint’s invitation for this week, he changed his mind after Perry surged to the lead in national polls.
“I told him we’ll leave a light on for you,” DeMint said, adding that he has not made a final judgment on any of the candidates. DeMint’s Romney endorsement last time came after the former governor pushed through a statewide health-insurance mandate in Massachusetts, but before President Obama modeled his own health-care reform bill after Romney’s. The climate has changed.
“I’m not going to disqualify any of the candidates on one issue at this point, but sometimes one issue is a symbol of how they are on other issues,” he said.
One thing is clear: DeMint is in no hurry. “I found in the past that when I endorse candidates, they don’t listen after I make the endorsement,” he said. “I want them to still be listening in January.”