Without DeMint, Is the Tea Party Weaker?
Mainstream Republicans are breathing easier as the South Carolina senator steps down.
The shocking decision by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) to quit the Senate will do more than leave a bitter taste in the mouths of his tea party followers, who now find themselves leaderless in Congress during contentious fiscal cliff negotiations.
DeMint's departure also helps the GOP's mainstream wing retake control of the Republican Party, avoiding what could have been a very bloody fight.
The establishment GOP is fed up with the tea party, blaming it for alienating mainstream voters with extreme positions on fiscal and social issues and allowing President Obama to win a second term.
The signs are clear that the tea party movement's clout is eroding. DeMint's departure next month to head the conservative Heritage Foundation follows the defeat last month of a half-dozen tea party House members and a pair of ultraright Senate candidates.
More recently, three tea party House members were shown the back of House Speaker John Boehner's (R-OH) hand when he yanked them off prestigious committees to signal he will no longer stand for their obstinate behavior.
At the same time, antitax lobbyist Grover Norquist is under assault from all sides and is watching his power wane. More and more Republicans are recanting their pledge to Norquist to not vote to raise taxes, no longer seeing him as someone to be feared. This week, Boehner declared that one way or another, the rich are going to pay more in taxes.
DeMint claims he never planned to make a career out of the Senate and always coveted a policy-related job, such as this opportunity to run a conservative think tank. "It's time for me to pass the torch to someone else and take on a new role in the fight for America's future," he said.
Along with others in the mainstream, Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) can rest easier, now that the tea party darling is resigning his seat. DeMint was a burr under McConnell's saddle and had been seen as a threat at one time to try to oust him. The dislike for McConnell in tea party circles is clear even amid DeMint's exit.
"If McConnell smiles at hearing the news Jim DeMint is leaving the Senate, he should remember Obi Wan Kenobi telling him...errrr...Darth Vader, 'If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine,'" writes tea party blogger and talk radio host Erick Erickson, a South Carolinian mentioned as a potential candidate to run for DeMint's seat.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) is likely to grab the reins as leader of the Senate tea party caucus, but he will have plenty of competition for that job from Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rand Paul (R-KY).
DeMint's term expires in 2016. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) will appoint a stand-in who will serve until a special election can be held in 2014. Potential replacements for DeMint include GOP Reps. Mick Mulvaney, Trey Gowdy and Tim Scott. Others being mentioned are state Sen. Tom Davis, who served as chief of staff to former Gov. Mark Sanford, and state Treasurer Curtis Loftis. Haley, whose term ends in early 2015, is seen as a likely candidate in the special election in 2014.
Meanwhile, the senior senator from South Carolina, Republican Lindsey Graham, may be getting the biggest gift of all from DeMint's exodus. Graham was seen as vulnerable to a tea party challenge in 2014, but the sweepstakes to fill DeMint's seat makes that a lot less likely now.
Democrats have been banking on a more hostile takeover by establishment Republicans, but it doesn’t mean they aren't gleeful about the way things are playing out for the Grand Old Party.
"I always thought he was a straight shooter and he had his views, but he was a person of integrity," says Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY). "But certainly his effect on the political system may have been more beneficial to Democrats than Republicans."