DeMint could be a force backing candidates in 2014 election

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) might be leaving the upper chamber, but the conservative favorite is likely to remain a force to be reckoned with in the 2014 cycle.

DeMint has not publicly discussed how active he plans to remain in Senate primaries, one of his major focuses during his last few years in Congress. 

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If he decides to focus more on policy and not get involved in the actual contests, that could leave a void on the right and let the National Republican Senatorial Committee become more involved in recruiting and aiding primary candidates. 

But his departure from the Senate also frees him from a promise not to back primary challenges to his colleagues. If he decides to use his new perch as increased leverage in those races, his power could actually increase.

Those close to DeMint, who’s leaving in January to head the Heritage Foundation, say he plans to focus more on policy messaging, but hasn’t ruled out keeping a toe in the political waters.

“Sen. DeMint made that pledge so that he could work more effectively with his colleagues. Now he’s free to do whatever he can do in the future. That said, I think he’ll be more focused on policy at Heritage and less involved in campaigns,” said Matt Hoskins, a longtime DeMint confidant who now runs the Senate Conservatives Fund, an outside group DeMint helped set up before it became a super-PAC last summer.

Hoskins said that DeMint largely had been a policy “wonk” in his early days in Congress before putting an increased focus on primaries in the last few cycles. He predicted that the retiring senator would spend most of his time pushing for conservative policies and using his new perch to help mobilize the conservative grass roots for policy specifics — and less time on helping particular Senate candidates.

“I think he’ll focus on the new role he has and that he may be less involved in campaigns. That doesn’t mean that he can’t be and that doesn’t mean that he won’t be involved [in races],” Hoskins said. “He really is going to be more free to do what he wants, and I expect he’ll really focus on Heritage and policy.”

If DeMint stayed in the Senate, he would be ranking member on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, where he could have influenced policy on a number of issues.

DeMint’s office and Heritage Action, the Heritage Foundation’s political arm, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

The two-term senator did hint at his plans in an interview with Rush Limbaugh on the day he announced his retirement.

“After spending most of life in advertising and marketing and research, I know that we can do a whole lot better job of convincing the American people — winning their hearts and souls — and if we do that, then we’re going to be more effective inside of Congress and more effective at election time,” he said.

DeMint was one of the sharpest thorns in the NRSC’s side the last few elections. 

During the 2010 election cycle he endorsed a number of contenders running against the NRSC’s preferred candidates. He pledged to involve himself only in open primaries in 2012 but gave large sums to the Club for Growth during its campaign against Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), who ended up losing his primary to Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock (R), although it’s unclear whether the group spent his donations on that race or others.

DeMint also pressured the NRSC and its outgoing chairman, Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), not to endorse any candidates in 2012. While the organization was involved in some candidate recruitment, it did not get publicly involved in any primaries. Mourdock’s weak campaign as well as Rep. Todd Akin’s (R-Mo.) controversial comments likely cost the GOP two seats, though Republican candidates from across the political spectrum lost competitive Senate races. (DeMint did not endorse either Mourdock or Akin.)

The NRSC faces a tricky situation. The ever-expanding influence of outside groups and rowdy grass roots quick to react against any perceived meddling has both weakened their ability to influence primaries and heightened the risk that any efforts for a candidate will backfire.

“There are some very big opportunities in 2014. The question is whether or not the NRSC delivers in the primaries, whether or not they step in,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell, who has been involved in a number of Senate races (and contributes to The Hill’s Pundits Blog). “You saw the grief that Cornyn got in 2010 — there was always grumbling if they entered too much, or not enough. They’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Right now we have six relatively toss-up races and they have to clean the slate if they want to be back in power or come close to it.”

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The NRSC is in the process of re-evaluating how it involves itself in primary contests. 

Incoming NRSC Chairman Jerry Moran (Kan.) has said he’ll take the races on a “case-by-case” basis, and Sen.-elect Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a Tea Party favorite who was backed by DeMint and defeated an establishment candidate, has been brought in as his deputy to work with state-level grassroots activists to help identify and recruit strong candidates for their races. 

The NRSC did not return a request for comment, and Cruz’s office said he was traveling and unable to discuss the issue.

Cruz’s involvement in the NRSC might help its image with activists, and Moran and DeMint are allies — DeMint endorsed Moran during his 2010 Senate primary against Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), whom most others perceived to be more conservative. But insiders expect that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who’s not a favorite of some party activists, will be more involved with the NRSC this year.

DeMint’s move to Heritage won’t end conservative groups’ involvement in GOP primaries. 

Hoskins said the Senate Conservatives Fund will continue to “do what we’ve always done” and pointed out that when it became a super-PAC during the summer, DeMint lost his official role as the group’s head. Other groups like the Club for Growth likewise plan to be involved in races. 

But DeMint’s ability to command respect from the grass roots, as well as his strong fundraising connections, mean how involved he decides to be in the 2014 campaigns could affect what type of efforts the NRSC can make to shape the party’s primaries.