US Senator Jim DeMint, a powerful Republican closely identified with the anti-tax tea party movement, announced that he is resigning his Senate seat to lead a conservative think tank, in an abrupt retirement that reverberated through a soul-searching party.
DeMint, who antagonized party leaders and challenged centrist veterans he did not view as conservative enough, said on Thursday he would step down on Jan. 1 to helm the Washington-based Heritage Foundation while continuing the conservative fight.
The resignation of DeMint, 61, will not affect the Senate’s makeup, because the state’s Republican governor gets to appoint his successor. However, it comes at a time of introspection for Republicans, with a strong conservative element pitted against the establishment as the party tries to figure out its next moves after last month’s defeat in the presidential race and the loss of congressional seats.
Some question whether DeMint and the Tea Party movement pushed the party too far to the right, backing several Republican Senate candidates who excited conservatives, but ended up losing to Democrats.
DeMint sometimes infuriated fellow Republicans by picking sides in party primaries, bankrolling candidates with millions from his political action committee, the Senate Conservatives Fund.
In the past two election cycles, Republicans were expected to challenge for control of the Senate. Instead, several seats that were expected to fall to Republicans were lost by candidates who had trouble winning over moderate voters who decide general elections.
“His effect on the system may have been more beneficial to Democrats than to Republicans,” said Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, whose party will hold a 55-45 edge in the Senate next year.
Shocked Senate Republicans were too courteous to say good riddance to DeMint, but a few made it clear that there were still hard feelings over the senator’s political moves.
Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski simply said “I won” when asked about DeMint backing her Republican primary rival in 2010, forcing her to run as a write-in candidate.
Yet several Republicans who owe their seats to DeMint expressed appreciation for a man they consider the chief instigator of the Tea Party movement.
Florida’s Marco Rubio said: “I would not be in the US Senate had it not been for Jim DeMint taking a shot on me.”
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said DeMint forced Washington to address economic issues.
“There is no question in my mind that he raised the profile of important issues like spending and debt and helped galvanize the American people against a big government agenda,” McConnell said in a statement.
DeMint’s exit ensures a far more lucrative future for him than the annual Senate salary of US$174,000.
Edwin Feulner, the man DeMint will replace, made more than US$1.2 million last year.
DeMint’s departure creates an opening for a new generation of hard-charging conservatives in the Senate — Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah and soon-to-be Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.
It also creates an opening in South Carolina, where Republican Governor Nikki Haley will pick a successor to serve two years until the next election.
Among the potential candidates are several House of Representatives members, including Representative Tim Scott, who would contend to become the first African-American senator since Barack Obama became president and the first black Republican senator in decades.