House Divided

08.30.13

Has Jim DeMint Gone Too Far?

Impossible demands for loyalty and shutdown threats have led some Republican diehards to shut out the Heritage Foundation chief. Michelle Cottle reports.

What does it take for the purity-above-all House Republicans to decide that there is such a thing as too much ideological rigidity? Ask Jim DeMint.

After months—years really—of serving as the scourge of any GOPer he deemed too squishy, the über-conservative senator–turned–Heritage Foundation president finally earned a gentle spanking from his former colleagues. Upon Congress’s return from recess next week, Heritage staffers will no longer be welcome at weekly meetings of the conservative Republican Study Committee.

The ban, which ends a decades-long special arrangement between the two groups, reportedly flowed from a dust-up between Heritage and lawmakers over this summer’s Farm Bill negotiations. (Even the stripped-down version that the House passed was insufficiently austere for Heritage’s taste.) But ag policy is merely the tip of the iceberg for DeMint, who has been hammering Republican lawmakers to hold the conservative line on everything from immigration to Obamacare—to the increasing annoyance of even ideologically simpatico members. While banishing Heritage from planning sessions may not have much practical effect, it’s a sign that congressional Republicans are rethinking their willingness to take DeMint’s abuse lying down.

Which is not to say that Hill Republicans didn’t know DeMint was going to be a gigantic pain once he left office. He was, after all, a gigantic pain while in office. Upon leaving the chummy upper chamber and establishing an independent perch at Heritage, of course he was going to escalate the fight.

Just this week, in fact, DeMint is wrapping up arguably his most aggressive assault to date on his own party: a two-week, nine-city town-hall tour spreading the message that Obamacare must be stopped by any means necessary, including shutting down the federal government. Now most Republicans, of course, would be delighted to defund much if not all of the Affordable Care Act. But most also acknowledge that a government shutdown would not only be politically devastating for the GOP, it simply wouldn’t work. As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told a crowd back home in Kentucky, “I’m for stopping Obamacare, but shutting down the government will not stop Obamacare.”

This kind of squish talk is like catnip for DeMint. And so, joined by Rafael Cruz, father of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (who rose to office with the support of the DeMint-founded Senate Conservatives Fund PAC), DeMint spent a chunk of his recess rallying supporters in Indianapolis, Dallas (where Senator Cruz made an appearance), Tampa, Nashville, Birmingham, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Wilmington, Delaware, and Fayettville, Arkansas, with the battle cry that Republicans unwilling to go to the mattresses over Obamacare are too soft for public service and “need to be replaced.” At stops along the way, he called out particular lawmakers for criticism. (He took a swipe at John Boehner, for instance, while in the speaker’s home state of Ohio.) 

Members of the party establishment, understandably, are growing increasingly anxious, and sounding the alarm about the possible repercussions of shutdown shenanigans.

Meanwhile, the Senate Conservatives Fund—which DeMint no longer heads but is still run by his former advisers and staffers—is making the fight even more personal. Last week, the group launched a series of radio ads slamming a half-dozen Republican senators who have declined to sign a letter pledging to shut down the government as a way to defund the ACA. Among those on the hit list are McConnell, Arizona conservative Jeff Flake (to whose campaign the SCF contributed richly last year), and DeMint’s former South Carolina colleague, Lindsey Graham. Brushing off the attack, Flake responded by tweeting “Oh, whatever”—which immediately prompted the SCF to release a second ad, urging Republicans to tell Flake “Oh, whatever” the next time he asked for their support.

And so the cycle of internecine savagery accelerates, even as Republicans brace for what is fast becoming an annual game of budget chicken. Members of the party establishment, understandably, are growing increasingly anxious, and sounding the alarm about the possible repercussions of shutdown shenanigans.

“Shutting down the government in an effort to defund is the one way Republicans can turn Obamacare from a major plus to a major minus in the 2014 elections,” warns GOP pollster Whit Ayers—who, as it turns out, has just completed “extensive polling on public opinion regarding a shutdown.” While Ayers declines to unpack the yet-to-be-released results of the survey, his for-God’s-sake-don’t-do-it attitude is a pretty big clue as to what he has heard from voters. In the coming days, Ayers, among others, will be trooping up to the Hill to discuss the issue with GOP players. He tells me, “There’s a great many people hoping that wiser heads will prevail.”

Perhaps they will. Then again, such “wiser heads” are precisely the ones that DeMint is measuring for the political chopping block.