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In the story of how Obamacare went from the undisputed "law of the land," as Speaker John Boehner said last November, to a law Republicans say is worth shutting down the government to stop, Jim DeMint has been the unsung protagonist.
Past and present aides to the former South Carolina Republican senator, tea party lawmakers he helped elect, and the Heritage Foundation he now leads have their fingerprints all over the political thriller that has left the federal government hanging in the balance. The DeMint diaspora is driving the drama, both behind the scenes and in front of the cameras.
"He's sort of the granddaddy of this current fight," said Matt Kibbe, the president and CEO of FreedomWorks, a key tea party ally.
When DeMint abruptly resigned his Senate seat this January four years before the end of his term, some scoffed that he was cashing in, trading the influence of a senator for the paycheck of a lobbyist. His predecessor at Heritage had been paid $1 million a year and it is presumed DeMint is making at least that much. But that chatter has all but ceased.
"There's no question in my mind that I have more influence now on public policy than I did as an individual senator," DeMint told NPR last week.
In large part, that's a testament to the wide network of likeminded aides and lawmakers he's placed in positions of power across Washington. "DeMint has left a legacy on the Hill that is full of ripple effects – and they're good ones," said Chris Chocola, the president of the Club for Growth, which has spent millions in GOP primaries to elect unbending conservatives. "He broke the mold and showed what could happen and he inspired others to follow."
That includes Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who said this spring, "I would not be in the United States Senate were it not for Senator Jim DeMint." So when Cruz set out to build his Capitol staff, he dipped heavily into the DeMint alumni network, hiring five of DeMint's former aides. Among them is Amanda Carpenter, his chief speechwriter, who helped prepare Cruz for his marathon anti-Obamacare speech. The others are Jeff Murray, Alexander Aramanda, Caitlin Thompson, and Samantha Leahy.
Cruz's chief Senate ally in the defunding fight has been Republican Mike Lee of Utah, another DeMint protégé. DeMint endorsed Lee in a video message that aired during the heated 2010 GOP convention where Lee emerged as the insurgent nominee. "Please send Mike Lee to the Senate so he can join me in the fight for our future," DeMint told the delegates.
These days Lee's legislative director, Wendy Baig, is a DeMint veteran, as is his deputy chief of staff Michael Connolly (who also did a tour at the Club for Growth).
Outside the Capitol, some of the loudest cheering for the defunding push has come from the Senate Conservatives Fund, a political action committee that DeMint founded. The group has aired anti-Obamacare ads featuring Cruz and Lee, gathered the signatures of 1.9 million Americans, and raised $1.5 million in August alone. Its executive director, Matt Hoskins, cut his political teeth as DeMint's chief of staff.
They've been joined in the battle by Heritage Action, the foundation's sister advocacy arm, which spent $550,000 on web ads targeting 100 wobbling Republicans this summer and has threatened to include votes to keep the government open and the health care law in place on its influential scorecard. One of DeMint's former aides, Tim Chapman, is the chief operating officer of Heritage Action.
"I think DeMint staffers have a unique bond," Carpenter said. "We all realized we were a part of something special and that's something we're all trying to carry forward in our new roles."
Though DeMint's former aides maintain a close-knit network, several sought to dispel the notion that their former boss is some kind of Wizard of Oz figure, orchestrating things behind the scenes. Instead, they are bonded by a shared ideology. "We all know we're not going to go get K Street jobs after this. We're not making friends with lobbyists. We're trying to tear everything down," Carpenter said.
"It's neat," she added. "It's special."
DeMint, 62, was elected to the House in 1998 but didn't become a national brand until almost a decade later, after he joined the Senate. The former marketing executive found a welcome home among the grassroots for his brand of strident, combative advocacy, even if it made for lonely fights in the Senate at the time. Some have called him the godfather of the tea party movement.
"The secret to what's he's been doing is he's figured out there's a huge proportion of the country that is deeply concerned about where we're going," Chapman said. "He's given them a voice. At the end of the day, that's what's made Jim an effective voice in American politics."
This January, DeMint took his inner circle with him to the Heritage Foundation, which, along with Heritage Action, has taken a notably more aggressive posture since his arrival. "It's taken on new life since he got there and it very much reflects his understanding that the last mile in politics is all about engaging grassroots," said Kibbe, who has been with FreedomWorks for 15 years.
It was a Heritage-sponsored nine-city tour of town halls, starring DeMint, that helped crystallize the GOP grassroots appetite for a shutdown fight during the August congressional recess. Cruz joined in for an event in Dallas that Heritage estimated drew more than 1,000 attendees.
Cruz praised the "fearlessness" of DeMint. "Superman wears Chuck Norris pajamas," Cruz joked. "And let me tell you, Chuck Norris wears Jim DeMint pajamas." The crowd erupted. It was the kind of raucous scene hard to envision under Heritage's past president Ed Feulner, who served from 1977 to 2013. During that time, Heritage became the movement's intellectual center – a place for coffee, croissants, and conference-room conservatism, not boisterous town halls.
The aggressiveness of Heritage's political arm this summer over the farm bill so incensed the Republican Study Committee, the 170-strong group of House conservatives, that they banished Heritage officials from their weekly meetings, after decades of cooperation. Heritage Action's constant with-us-or-against-us score keeping has frustrated all but the most conservative House members.
The activist shift under DeMint has rankled some old Heritage hands, as well. Mickey Edwards, one of Heritage's founding trustees, told the Atlantic recently that Heritage now looks "like just another hack tea party kind of group."
There are potential legal pitfalls for DeMint, as well. As a former senator, he's subject to a two-year cooling off period before he's allowed to lobby his former colleagues – even if he's loudly and publicly telling them what to do in the ongoing Obamacare fight. A Senate ethics memo from 2012 reminded officials that "federal criminal law prohibits former senators from knowingly communicating or appearing before any current member or employee of the Senate or House…if they have the intent to influence official actions and they are acting on behalf of any other person." DeMint and Cruz appeared on the same stage in Dallas, for instance, though never at the same time, according to news reports.
Ethics rules aside, establishment Republicans are complaining that DeMint, Cruz, Lee, Heritage Action, and the Senate Conservatives Fund have led the party into a kamikaze mission to demand that President Obama unwind his signature domestic achievement. Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina has called it the "dumbest idea I've ever heard."
Others have complained that DeMint, Heritage, SCF, and the Club are too concerned about punishing wayward Republicans and not winning more seats from Democrats who control the Senate. They point to DeMint's history of backing general-election losers in GOP primaries, including Ken Buck in Colorado and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, who both fumbled away winning seats in 2010.
But DeMint, long a lonely ideological warrior, has never been one to listen to mainstream GOP or media critiques. The difference now is the House is steered by the right flank of the Republican Party and the Senate is populated with at least a vocal group of unbending Republicans in DeMint's image – many of whom he helped elect.
"Pick any issue, pick any fight, and who are the people that are charging out into battle and leading the fight, they are the Rand Pauls, the Mike Lees, the Marco Rubios – the leaders who are there because of Jim DeMint's support," Cruz said in a South Carolina speech this spring honoring DeMint.
DeMint was often among the earliest, loudest, and most important backers of those insurgents, often against establishment favorites. For instance, DeMint reached out to Rubio to set up an endorsement meeting the same day the official Senate GOP arm endorsed Rubio's opponent, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. In his political memoir, Rubio wrote of how DeMint's call had provided a critical boost "on a day when I felt the entire Republican universe had lined up in opposition to me."
Rubio, Cruz, Lee, Paul, and Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, another DeMint-backed insurgent, were all among those who voted together on a key procedural tally to try to block a measure to keep the government open, fearing it would allow Obamacare to be funded. So did Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who replaced DeMint in the Senate and is another protégé.
After the measure passed, Cruz turned his attention to the lower chamber, successfully pushing hardline House conservatives to unite and send the Senate a second Obamacare-gutting measure, this time delaying the law for a year. Lee could be found stalking the halls of the House late Saturday night as votes dragged past midnight.
The measure would have prevented the health care law from going into effect Oct. 1. But that was not enough to win the full support of Heritage Action, which remained officially neutral, because "it falls short of full defunding."
"If I were speaker, I'd tell the president, 'Mr. President, we funded the government, but we're not going to fund your bill,' " DeMint, who declined an interview for this story, told Bloomberg last week. "'We are not going to give in—one month, two months, three months. We are never going to give in. It's just that important.' And if the president wants to put the country through that to save a law that isn't ready to go, well, then that's a battle we have to have."
Because of his acolytes, it's a battle that's happening.
These days, Chocola of Club for Growth said that more and more Republican candidates come in for endorsement interviews saying the same thing: "I want to be like Jim DeMint."
"That," Chocola tells them, "is a good model to follow."