By Stuart Rothenberg
South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, who once proclaimed that he’d rather have “30 Republicans in the Senate who believe in principles of freedom than 60 who don’t believe in anything,” continues to endorse Senate candidates and give leaders in his own party migraine headaches.
But one politician must be smiling from ear to ear when he follows DeMint’s antics: President Barack Obama.
That’s because, more than Florida’s Marco Rubio, Kentucky’s Rand Paul or Colorado’s Ken Buck — all endorsed by DeMint in GOP Senate primaries against the wishes of party strategists and insiders — the president stands to benefit the most, long term, from DeMint’s rhetoric and actions leading up to the 2010 midterm elections.
DeMint’s “believers” comment offers one of those false choices that boil everything down to extremes: Either you are a “conservative” or you aren’t. There aren’t any shades of gray.
The South Carolina Republican apparently doesn’t concede that even “conservatives” can have different styles and different opinions about how much compromise is necessary to move the country in the right direction.
So far this cycle, DeMint has endorsed a number of Republicans in competitive primaries, including Rubio, Paul, Buck, Utah’s Mike Lee and California’s Chuck DeVore. In Nevada, he indicated a preference for Danny Tarkanian and Sharron Angle, clearly marking his opposition to former state party Chairwoman Sue Lowden.
Oddly, DeMint has not yet endorsed J.D. Hayworth in Arizona or Joe Miller in Alaska, even though both men are attacking their opponents, Sens. John McCain and Lisa Murkowski, for being insufficiently conservative.
One GOP strategist familiar with DeMint’s thinking explained the Senator’s nonendorsement so far this way: “He’s willing to rock the boat but is being careful not to turn over the ship.” That sounds dangerously close to pragmatism over principle, doesn’t it?
Clearly DeMint walks more cautiously when incumbent colleagues are involved, which explains why he didn’t endorse in the Utah contest until Sen. Bob Bennett was eliminated at the GOP state convention, as well as why he hasn’t endorsed in Alaska. (DeMint did back Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey before Sen. Arlen Specter switched parties.)
Given Hayworth’s record in Congress, DeMint probably isn’t likely to get involved in Arizona. But a pre-primary endorsement against Murkowski is not off the table, though Miller almost certainly needs to develop into a greater threat to Murkowski than he now is.
The endorsements of DeVore and, to a lesser extent, Buck are particularly noteworthy because both men are much weaker general election candidates than their primary opponents.
Matt Hoskins, a spokesman for DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund, told me that electability is an issue for DeMint: “He isn’t going to endorse someone who can’t win a general election.”
Well, I can’t find anyone who knows something about California politics who thinks that DeVore could beat Boxer this year or any year.
Polling conducted shortly before the California primary showed DeVore running about as well against Boxer as ex-Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina or former Rep. Tom Campbell. But basing a conclusion about viability on that single factor would demonstrate incredible naiveté about California politics.
Some of DeMint’s choices certainly can and will win in the current political environment, which strongly favors Republicans. Kentucky’s Paul and Nevada’s Angle have better-than-even chances of winding up in the Senate, and it’s difficult to argue that any of Angle’s closest primary competitors would have been stronger against Reid than she will be.
But that’s not true everywhere. Former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton would be a much stronger GOP nominee than Buck in Colorado, and many “movement conservatives,” including former Sen. Bill Armstrong, have endorsed her.
So why is DeMint with Buck? Some savvy political observers believe that it has less to do with ideology and more to do with DeMint simply liking to stir the pot, to cause trouble for those in the establishment.
But forget electability for now. It’s not why White House strategists have reason to cheer on DeMint.
The South Carolina Republican apparently believes that American voters are heavily ideological — and strongly conservative — and that if Republicans stand their ground on the right, a majority of Americans will see liberals for what they are and come rushing over to embrace conservatives, not only in the midterms but also into the future.
In fact, anyone who has watched or studied American politics since the Vietnam era knows that American voters — particularly the kind of swing voters who decide elections — are not an ideological bunch. That’s why you have Iowa voters sending both conservative Chuck Grassley (R) and liberal Tom Harkin (D) to the Senate.
By beating the conservative drum the way he does — demonizing conservatives who he says aren’t conservative enough, helping nominate candidates more interested in throwing grenades than in passing legislation and belittling compromise in a country built on political compromises — DeMint makes it easier for Democrats to paint his own party in an unflattering light.
A Senate Republican Conference filled after November with DeMint-like ideologues, troublemakers and self-righteous conservatives is a caucus that is sure to sound rigid and uncompromising, arrogant and doctrinaire. Style doesn’t matter to true believers, but it does to the American people.
And that’s why Obama is smiling.
This column first appeared in Roll Call on July 13, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.