Sen. Jim DeMint resigns to head Heritage Foundation
By taking over The Heritage Foundation, Sen. Jim DeMint can infuse the leading conservative organization with a Tea Party philosophy, political observers said Thursday.
DeMint, 61, a South Carolina Republican, surprised many people by announcing he would leave the Senate in January. Fewer were shocked by his decision to become president of the Washington-based policy group.
“Jim was always more about ideas and less about politics,” said Bruce Haynes, a managing partner of Purple Strategies, a political consulting firm in Virginia. “To see Jim want to put his hands on the steering wheel of one of the biggest engines in the conservative movement makes sense.”
A founding member of the Senate Tea Party Caucus, DeMint was a star of the grassroots movement that rose from the 2008 election and public anger over the federal health care law.
“I'm leaving the Senate now, but I'm not leaving the fight,” DeMint said in a statement, adding that the “conservative movement needs strong leadership in the battle of ideas.”
In the Senate since 2005, DeMint won re-election in 2010. He served three terms in the U.S. House, and ran a research and marketing business for 20 years.
“It's hard to identify someone who is more associated with Tea Party positions in the Senate,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “From a Tea Party perspective, that's a pretty big void to fill by any member.”
South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley will appoint someone to fill DeMint's seat until a special election in 2014 for the remainder of DeMint's term, until 2017.
The Republican Party lost two Senate seats in the November election. Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah likely will continue to push Tea Party Caucus views in the chamber.
DeMint's presence at The Heritage Foundation could bolster the Tea Party movement while influencing the conservative group's thinking, said Jeff Brauer, a political science professor at Keystone College in Lackawanna County.
“There's no doubt there's going to be a change in the tone of The Heritage Foundation,” he said, “and it does give the Tea Party more of a stable presence in the political dialogue.”
DeMint will take over at Heritage on April 3, succeeding Edwin J. Feulner, a founder who has been its president for 35 years.
Heritage operated with an $80 million budget in 2010 and paid Feulner more than $1 million that year, according to its latest IRS filings. By comparison, a U.S. senator made $174,000 this year.
Speaking at a Heritage event in October, DeMint credited the foundation and its policy papers with helping him develop his political thoughts and inspiring his involvement in public service.
“It was the Heritage papers and what they did that drew me into the process,” he said. “It got me interested.”
In a statement, Heritage Chairman Thomas A. Saunders praised DeMint's “passion for rigorous research, his dedication to the principles of our nation's founding, and his ability to translate policy ideas into action.”
Heritage officials wanted a leader who would carry on the organization's founding ideals, spokesman Jim Weidman said.
“It's the dedication to conservative principles that has been lodestar for DeMint as a politician and that has always been lodestar for Heritage as a policy shop,” Weidman said.
Though the move to Heritage could be considered a horizontal shift from elected leadership to directing public policy, it could be catalytic for conservative thinking, said Steven Peterson, a politics professor at Penn State University in Harrisburg.
“I find it kind of an interesting switch,” Peterson said. “The Heritage Foundation clearly is conservative, but I'm not sure I would have said it's kind of ‘Tea Party conservative.' DeMint coming in as a key figure may well signal something.”
Andrew Conte is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7835 or email@example.com.