“I’m leaving the Senate now, but I’m not leaving the fight. I’ve decided to join The Heritage Foundation at a time when the conservative movement needs strong leadership in the battle of ideas,” DeMint, 61, said in a statement.
DeMint’s decision marks a monumental change from a not-so-long-ago era when abandoning a prime perch in the Senate to head a think tank would have been unthinkable. But the past decade has shown the influence that figures outside of elected office — whether tea party leaders or anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist — can have on the conservative movement.
“It’s a creative, innovative move, and demonstrative of the newer way of thinking about how to use new tools today to move an agenda, where service in government is just one way, but not the only way, to drive the conversation,” said Eric Ueland, a former Senate chief of staff and now a lobbyist with the Duberstein Group.
“The landscape has changed,” added Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who jousted with DeMint over endorsements of Republican Senate candidates. “The influence of the political parties has been diminished with the rise of super PACs and other people who decide to get involved.”
DeMint’s job at Heritage will almost certainly come with a great deal more money than his $174,000 Senate salary. The terms of his deal are unknown, but the man DeMint will replace, Edwin Feulner, makes more than $1 million a year.
DeMint’s move is part of a reordering of the Republican Party after an election in which the GOP could not gain the presidency and lost seats in the Senate and House. Earlier this week, former Republican House majority leader Richard K. Armey stepped down from FreedomWorks, an influential group aligned with the tea party movement. And in the House, Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) kicked a few conservative lawmakers off prominent committees in an effort to consolidate power.
DeMint retires from the Senate having exerted an enormous amount of influence on the institution — yet without ever having passed a single piece of significant legislation.
Rather than rising up the Senate ranks to influence legislation, DeMint chose to be a cheerful starter of civil wars. With his Senate Conservatives Fund, DeMint assembled candidates and money to wage primary fights against establishment Republicans he deemed insufficiently conservative. He experienced both spectacular success and failure.
DeMint helped create a new brand of tea party senator, focused on shrinking the federal government, cutting spending and supporting conservative social causes, what Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) hailed Thursday as the “liberty caucus.” Paul’s 2010 primary victory upended an establishment pick supported by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).