Campaign Crawlers

DeMint Before Dinner

A conversation with the Senate's top conservative on the rising conservative tide.

By 3.8.10

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TAMPA -- A fairly good writer once said: There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads, God knows where. Or words to that effect.

The tide in 2010, in Florida and across the nation, appears to be a conservative reaction to the leftward lurch in Washington. We see this among Republicans, independents, even among a limited number of sentient Democrats. The late enchantment with the little hustler from Chicago appears to have largely dissipated. Buyers' remorse has set in.

Considering the prevailing mood, when the Hillsborough County (Tampa) Republican Executive Committee was looking for a keynote speaker for their Lincoln Day dinner last Saturday, they landed no less than South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, a national conservative leader.

DeMint established the Senate Conservatives Fund to help U.S. Senate candidates willing to fight for limited government, a strong national defense, and family values. He's active in recruiting conservative Senate candidates, and has strongly backed conservative former Florida House speaker Marco Rubio over moderate-to-liberal Florida governor Charlie Crist for the nomination to the Senate seat Mel Martinez resigned from last summer.

Before the dinner I visited with DeMint. Below is part of our conversation:  

The American Spectator: I wonder if you're seeing what I believe I'm seeing in Florida and across the nation. It appears that in 2010 the goals of the Republican Party and those of the conservative movement are more aligned than they've been for decades.

Jim DeMint: I think so -- I believe what's happening is we're seeing more and more Republicans embracing the energy and passion that you see in the Tea Party movement. A lot of that certainly has a conservative flavor -- less government, less spending, less debt. So there's an accountability being imposed on the party by more activist voters.

I think it's a very positive thing. The Republican Party across the country has stayed conservative. But a lot of the old guard in Washington has drifted off in another direction. Now I think that's changing, probably in the House first -- you see more and more House members swearing off earmarks, focusing on spending caps. America wants us to make a commitment that if we get the majority again we're not going to continue spending and borrowing, we're going to swear off earmarks and balance the budget. So I think we're moving in the right direction.

TAS: Has the Republican Party learned the right lessons from the routs of '06 and '08?

JD: Yes. I certainly learned something. That's why I started the Senate Conservative Fund. That's why I'm out here trying to find candidates who can carry the banner inside the Senate. Many Republicans have learned something. There are still some who haven't, still some who'd say the only problems we had in '06 and '08 were George Bush and the Iraq war. It was obviously much deeper than that.

We had the opportunity of a lifetime with a Republican in the White House and a Republican majority in Congress and we just didn't do what we said we were going to do. We let some of the old guard there, because of the seniority system, spend us into oblivion. We have to change that. A lot of those guys are retired now, or might lose this time. So we're going to refresh the pool with some new thinking.

TAS: How much of the "old guard" problem is indicated by the fact so much of the party establishment backed moderate Florida Governor Charlie Crist against conservative Marco Rubio for nomination to the Senate seat Mel Martinez resigned from?

JD: Sure. That's indicative of what we've been seeing, that some of the old guard still wants to just find somebody that polls the best and can raise the most money. And what you're seeing from the grass-roots is they want someone who shares their principles. That's the big contrast in the Rubio race, and in the Pennsylvania race between Pat Toomey and Arlen Specter. I think you're going to see that around the country this year. Good primaries are good for the party. Because people feel like they have a choice, they can get engaged. Then it's more likely we can get everybody together in the general election.

TAS: The old guard certainly did jump in early in the Crist-Rubio race. Some endorsed Crist just hours after Crist announced.

JD: Yes. But I want to be clear. I'm not really critical of John Cornyn of the Senate committee. When he was recruiting at this time last year no one wanted to run as a Republican. Getting people to run was a challenge. But as things have developed and with the country starting to come our way, it's really important that we field candidates who can embrace what's going on across the country. All you have to is do look at the polls and add up those who say Republican and those who say Tea Party. If we get all those we add up to about 60 percent.

TAS: And the last time I looked the number of people who self-identify as conservative exceeds the number who self-identify as Republicans.

JD: Right. And that gap has grown. Nothing has changed about the conservatives. But I think a lot of them thought the Republicans had abandoned their principles. We have a real opportunity this election if we put candidates out front that people can believe in. We're looking for real change you can believe in. Now we've got change you can't believe.

TAS: Does Marco Rubio qualify as a candidate conservative Republicans can believe in?

JD: Yes. He's very genuine. He's not just throwing red meat at a bunch of conservatives. He has a heart-felt message that's inspiring. You just don't see that in politics much anymore. There are a lot of one-liners and applause lines out there. But that's not what Marco's doing. He's reminding people of America's greatness, what a privilege it is in America to start with nothing but to be able to work and make something of yourself. I've seen him speak before folks who've been involved in the political process for a long time and he has them standing on their feet before he leaves. He appears to be the real deal.

I'm really encouraged because we have some new Republicans on the national stage like Marco Rubio who completely dispel a lot of stereotypes about Republicans. He's not just an old white guy, or an old mean guy. He's of Cuban descent. He's young, well-spoken, and very sincere. He's not just using political jargon. He's talking American principles, and he's connecting them to current issues. If we can find a few more candidates like this we can change the image of the party. And we can change its substance as well. It doesn't take but a few pushing the right way to get the whole Senate to go right.

TAS: Two thousand ten looks good for the Republican Party and for conservatives. Is it too early to talk about 2012? It's less than two years to the Iowa caucus. Who'll be the conservative champion then?

JD: I believe as soon as this election is over in November we'll probably know who our potential candidates are. I think a lot of them will come out and campaign for various candidates and give us some idea of what they are for and what they're against.

TAS: Are you going to be in that mix?

JD: I don't think so. I hope I can be part of helping to find somebody who can really change things. It's going to be hard because we need someone who will tell Americans the truth. The truth is we can't make any more promises that the federal government is going to do more for us. It will take a very talented person to say that the federal government has to do less rather than more. That's not too far from the Churchill promise of nothing more than blood, sweat, and tears. It doesn't have to sound that harsh, but the fact is we're going to have to sacrifice to pull ourselves away from where we are. And I'm starting to think that Americans are ready for that now.

TAS: President Obama's numbers keep dropping, both for him personally and for his policies. That's good news for Republicans. But you can't beat somebody with nobody. Do you expect somebody we haven't even been thinking about to pop out of the woodwork to go with the names we already know?

JD: Possibly so. They're some good names out there. Among others there's Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana, who has demonstrated he can make tough decisions at the state level and manage a state in very difficult times. He certainly knows the national scene. And people like that who might not be as dynamic, but who might be much better candidates in 2012 because I think Americans are saying we tried dynamic and it hasn't worked. Could we try boring? I think Americans are looking for a grownup who has proven he can manage things. You can't lead with rhetoric, and that's what we see being tried now in Washington. So we may see a different kind of candidate this time.

I think people will be looking outside of Washington. There are some bright House members like Mike Pence and others who have come up with good proposals. But I think there will be a lot of attention on governors who've been able to manage things. Young might not be good next time. We might be looking for some gray hair. We need to pull our party back to the main-stream, where America is, because our party has drifted way to the left. There's nothing moderate about spending the country into oblivion. Being conservative is just remembering the things that work. The things that got us where we were as a nation, and which can take us back if we'll let them. There's nothing radical or far-right about that. We're the mainstream. We embrace what a broad majority of Americans believe in and care about.

******

DeMint hit the same themes Saturday night before a very receptive dinner crowd of about 350 in Tampa. He beat up on what he calls a "radicalized" Washington Democratic Party for trying to expand government into every area of our lives. "This is what unrestrained Democratic Control looks like," he said. But he also scalded Republicans in Congress who seem more interested in bringing home the bacon for their states or districts than in standing up for conservative principles.

"I didn't go to Washington to make friends, and I haven't been disappointed," joked DeMint, who sometimes finds himself cross-wise with the Republican establishment. But he may soon be having more friends at work if he has correctly read the electorate's mood this year. He says Americans appear ready to take their country back

"The American people have been pushed about as much as they can be pushed," he said. "And they aren't going to take it anymore."

One of DeMint's biggest applause lines of the night was when he said he would rather have a Republican Senate "of 30 Marco Rubios than 60 Arlen Specters." He estimated that about 60 or 70 percent of Americans in 2010 are not looking to elect more big spenders and ear-markers, but are looking for a few good limited government conservatives.

"And Americans want us to keep our promises if we get power again," he added to strong applause.

The remarks of local speakers were in the same vein. Hillsborough County Chairman Debbie Cox-Roush economically nailed Obamacare when she said, "Government health care is not about health care; it's about government."

Just so. The conservative tide clearly runs through Tampa and nearby precincts.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.