DeMint welcomes national spotlight

Go on Jim DeMint's Web site for his Senate re-election campaign, and you won't see much about South Carolina.

DeMint is “Your Conservative Voice in the Senate,” a lawmaker who with your help “can change the culture of corruption in Washington.”

A snazzy sequence of rolling promos exclaims “Drill Now!” – in green letters, no less – and invites you, under a photo of a pulled-pork sandwich, to “See How Congress Is Wasting Your Money!”

Click on issues, and you'll get a list of national causes: Earmark reform. Illegal immigration. Social Security. Family values. Economy.

DeMint's recent creation of the Senate Conservatives Fund PAC is his latest move to target Republican activists across the country and establish himself as a national leader of right-wing stalwarts.

Michelle Malkin, founder of hotair.com, a heavily trafficked conservative Web site, said DeMint's vehement opposition to immigration reforms and funding earmarks built him a national following that he is now expanding. “As grassroots and hard-right conservatives have been disappointed by the (Washington) Beltway establishment, Jim DeMint has offered us more than a glimmer of hope,” Malkin said.

Conservative talk radio hosts helped catapult DeMint to national fame during last summer's Senate immigration debate.

DeMint, 56, said he tried for a long time – first in the House and then, since 2005, in the Senate – to follow the favored Washington path of going along to get along, especially with his Republican elders.

“I spent a number of years as a team player trying to work with our leadership, only to find that our leadership was taking us in the wrong direction,” DeMint said.

The tipping point for DeMint was the 2006 congressional elections: Democrats regained control of Congress after spending had skyrocketed under GOP rule, while sex and lobbying scandals brought down prominent Republican lawmakers. “There was vastly too much spending, a lot of it in direct earmarks that enriched some of our own members and ended up in scandals and the betrayal of the American people,” DeMint said.

DeMint added: “It's just time to recognize that we've got to reshape the Republican Party if we're going to win the trust of the American people.”

DeMint doesn't believe that his national focus and hard-edged ideological agenda are at odds with his primary responsibility to pursue South Carolina's most pressing needs in Congress.

“I can do a lot more for our state by leading change in Congress than by throwing around taxpayer money,” he said.

Blease Graham, a University of South Carolina political scientist, said DeMint and fellow Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, in different ways, follow the path of their legendary predecessors, Strom Thurmond and Fritz Hollings, in tackling national issues.

“It's almost a South Carolina tradition in many ways to influence national policy with respect to the interests of South Carolinians,” Blease Graham said.

DeMint's emergence into the national limelight began in late 2006 when he blocked a mega-spending bill and forced Congress to remove 10,000 earmarks worth $17 billion sought by lawmakers from both parties for projects across the country.

In January 2007, after the Republican election debacle, DeMint's GOP peers elected him head of the Senate Steering Committee, the chamber's most conservative faction, with a dozen hard-right senators among the most active.

In May 2007, DeMint grabbed national headlines by branding a bipartisan immigration reform bill “amnesty” and leading the Senate opposition to defeat it after weeks of bitter debate.

DeMint's tactics often anger Democratic and Republican senators alike, whom he and his hard-line allies force to take uncomfortable votes on provisions that have no chance of passing.

For instance, the Senate voted 70-11 against DeMint's June 19 amendment to hold hearings on the lending practices of Countrywide, Bank of America and other big mortgage firms that could reap tens of billions from the housing-relief measure.

Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina joined Graham in defeating the amendment; GOP Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina voted for it.

“It is shameful when 70 senators oppose investigating how much taxpayers money will go to a company (Countrywide) that tried to give favors to politicians,” DeMint said. “This vote is going to make people wonder how many others in Congress have something to hide.”

House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt, a York Democrat, said DeMint and other conservative leaders will have to find new ideas and move beyond their decades-old haranguing of big government in order to draw new followers.

“We're got big problems in this country,” Spratt said “Their rhetoric was trained on a different time and a different set of problems. I think their rhetoric needs to be updated.”

DeMint denies that he is merely an obstructionist – a second coming of former Sen. Jesse Helms, the N.C. Republican who became known as “Senator No” for blocking treaties, spending bills and regulatory measures.

“I spend most of my time in Washington working on ideas to reform health care, reduce taxes and fix Social Security,” DeMint said. “But when necessary, I'm not going to be shy about fighting legislation that would bankrupt our economy or take away our freedoms.”