Jim DeMint has played many roles over the years: U.S. senator. Kingmaker. Advocate. Lawmaker. Mentor. Rabble-rouser. In his newest iteration as president of the Heritage Foundation, the conservative movement's pre-eminent think tank, he wants to transform the way conservatives craft and package their message. Chiefly, he sees a need to dispel a criticism he hears constantly: that Republicans simply don't care about some Americans.
He thinks he can accomplish this more effectively as an activist at Heritage than he ever could as a Republican in the Senate.
DeMint, who gave up his Senate seat last year, started his new, higher-paying gig at Heritage this week. As a former ad man for private marketing firms before he entered politics, DeMint acknowledges the power of a strong presentation.
"We know that lawmakers are not going to push, promote and pass conservative ideas unless people understand and support them," DeMint told Yahoo News in an interview on his second day at Heritage. "So what I want to do is use my career in advertising and marketing to figure out how to connect with the American people in a way that inspires them and shows them that they can achieve the things they want in their lives if they support the right public policies."
During his tenure in the Senate, DeMint quickly made a name for himself as a lawmaker willing to buck his own party. He opposed all bailout measures during the financial meltdown in 2008, for example, even as many fellow Republicans warned that Congress must act to avoid an economic Armageddon. He became known as an uncompromising figure in a chamber that cherishes the art of deal making. In the four years he spent in the Senate before the rise of the tea party in 2009, DeMint's positions often put him in a lonely place.
But he wasn't alone for long. DeMint began using his political action committee to boost Senate candidates whom, at the time, establishment Republicans wrote off as long shots without a chance. While some of DeMint's picks lost their races, many succeeded, giving rise to a new era of conservatives in Congress who have since become household names: Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz. After a string of successes in 2010, candidates actively began seeking DeMint's blessing. For many Republicans, the DeMint seal of approval was a must. Although DeMint didn't hold traditional positions of power in the chamber, he built himself up as the Senate's Republican kingmaker.
Eight years after he joined the chamber, DeMint now says "there's no question" the Senate is a different place from the one he encountered when he was first elected.
"I feel like my efforts to bring in some new blood are going to pay off, even though it was pretty unpopular at the time," he said. "I'm proud of the role that I played, but these folks now are leaders on their own."
From his perch at Heritage, a group that has a member base in the hundreds of thousands, DeMint can simultaneously feed policy ideas to his former colleagues in power while spreading their message outside Washington.
DeMint plans to continue investing in the policy work that has built Heritage into the Washington powerhouse it is today, but he will also seek to expand efforts to spread that message to voters. DeMint made the decision that before he could put together a fresh messaging strategy, he would need to root out weaknesses in the current one. For several months before officially joining Heritage, DeMint sat in on a series of listening sessions with voters focused on finding out why conservative messages have fallen short. The most prominent complaint he heard, particularly from black and Hispanic voters, was that they "don't believe Republicans care about them."
"The only way we're going to connect with people is to connect our ideas with the things that they really want in their lives," DeMint said. "I don't think the Republican Party has done a good job of carrying the ideas in that sense, and folks need to know we care about them. I think Heritage is in a better position as being outside the partisan framework to actually connect with people."
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