RINOs Had Better Start Looking Over Their Shoulders

Jim DeMint’s departure from the Senate for the Heritage Foundation will put an end to a key promise the confrontational conservative made his peers: Not to attack incumbent senators.  In fact, Senate Republicans up for reelection in 2014 who have tangled with the South Carolina senator may do well to start looking over their shoulders.

DeMint, a true conservative, has relished acting as a thorn in the side of leadership, and  become famous for throwing often random seeming monkey wrenches into the legislative process over spending levels.

DeMint has consistently argued the party needs to become more conservative and ideologically pure if it is to have lasting electoral successes — a message, while popular with activists, runs counter to the conventional wisdom amongst establishment Republicans (RINOs).

Of the members up for election in 2014, six RINOs stand out as potential targets for DeMint.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator DeMint have repeatedly clashed over policy positions and the broader direction of the conference and Republican Party.  Given his already significant unpopularity with conservative activists like Eric Erikson at redstate.com, McConnell was already facing at best thinly concealed hostility from conservatives in his upcoming re-election bid. And while he’s likely not in real danger from a primary challenge — or a general election Democratic opponent — DeMint has never been one to give up on a lost cause.

Senator Lindsay Graham and DeMint may talk a good game about how much they like and respect one another, but relations between the two have been strained since the former arrived in the Senate in 2004.  Although Graham is on the whole very conservative politically, he also has a pragmatic streak.   He worked with then Sen. Hillary Clinton on legislation early on during the Bush administration,  and also  demonstrated a willingness to address issues like climate change, which are anathema to conservatives.  He backed both of President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court picks on the grounds that the president should be allowed to pick his own people, even if they are liberal.

Senator Saxby Chambliss, the  second term Senator from Georgia whose  decision to openly break ranks with Grover Norquist over his tax pledge enraged already disgruntled conservative activists in the state as well as nationally, who have long viewed the soft spoken, mild manner Chambliss with some suspicion.  While conservative in his voting record,  his inability to talk like a conservative has become an increasing problem for him.  Chambliss is  very much a company man when it comes to McConnell’s control of his party and is a reliable vote both on votes and within the conference — which are not the sorts of traits that can endear you to DeMint or the conservatives he’s connected to.

Senator Susan Collins is one of the last vestiges of the Senate Republican conference’s moderate wing (RINOs).  Like former Sen. Bob Bennett and outgoing Sen. Richard Lugar, she represents an older version of the party based on so-called “Northeast Republican” principles that skew towards fiscal conservatism and away from the openly hostile, aggressive approach of modern conservative activists.   Her penchant for compromise and bipartisanship, traits DeMint and his supporters have become increasingly down on, have put her at odds with him on repeated occasions, and his involvement in Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s 2010 Senate race angered many moderates like Collins.

Senator Lamar Alexander  also heralds  from the GOP’s moderate wing.  Alexander has  consistently worked across the aisle, whether it be votes on Obama’s judicial nominations or support for efforts to curb man-made causes of climate change.  Over the years, Alexander has bristled at DeMint’s ideological crusading over various issues and his increasing demands that the party hew to a much harder line. In fact, Alexander’s frustration with DeMint and his acolytes became so bad last year, he left the conference’s leadership ranks.

Senator Pat Roberts,  an “Old Bull” legislator from Kansas is something of a wild card.  He’s never been particularly fond of DeMint — whom he once referred to chidingly as “young man” during a particularly tense period between DeMint and leadership.  And Roberts’ position as an institutionalist rubs DeMint and outside conservatives the wrong way, as has the fact that he is very much a loyal soldier to McConnell.

It is  unclear whether DeMint’s  position at The Heritage Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that is barred from playing in politics, will limit his ability to openly push for candidates.

Regardless, DeMint could play a pivotal role in the 2014 mid-term elections — either as a conservative kingmaker or as a spoiler who backs ideological pure but fundamentally unelectable candidates.   But one thing is obvious  –  DeMint’s move to the Heritage Foundation  is the conservative movement’s gain.

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