Jim DeMint, until recently a vocal leader of the tea party movement, will now play no role in the 2014 congressional elections—which may be another sign the movement is changing tactics.
The decision could also leave a tactical opening for moderate Republicans to influence the 2014 primary season.
The soon-to-be-former senator from South Carolina was a prominent face of the tea party in Washington. He played a key role in the historic 2010 election cycle, which changed the balance of power in Congress and energized the conservative movement.
But in an interview on Tuesday with Politico, DeMint says he will not actively campaign for candidates in 2014 and will instead promote conservative ideas.
“Hopefully candidates will embrace these ideas. But part of what we have to do is convince Americans that the ideas are right,” he said.
Part of the reason could be DeMint’s position with a nonprofit group and the subsequent restrictions on campaign activity.
The newspaper The Hill points out that if DeMint bows out of 2014 as promised, the void may be assumed by the more-moderate National Republican Senatorial Committee.
“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 told The Hill.
DeMint joins a list of tea party leaders, including Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, who have assumed lower public profiles in recent months.
Bachmann re-branded herself away from the tea party label to win a close re-election bid in Minnesota, while Palin makes fewer appearances on Fox News.
When DeMint announced his departure for the Heritage Foundation last week, he made it clear that his ideology wasn’t changing.
“One of the most rewarding things I’ve done in the Senate is work with the grassroots to help elect a new generation of leaders who have the courage to fight for the principles of freedom that make this country so great,” DeMint said in a statement. “I’m confident these senators will continue the legacy of conservative leaders before them.”
Now, a new generation of GOP leaders with some past association with the tea party will become the public faces of an evolving movement.
While the tea party had a lower profile in the 2012 election cycle, the potential fiscal cliff crisis has a chance to “re-energize the base” and bring its core issues of taxes and spending to the forefront.
Activist Grover Norquist says the tea party will come back bigger, stronger, and bolder if the fiscal cliff scenario comes to pass in Washington.
“Tea Party two is going to dwarf Tea Party one if Obama pushes us off the cliff,” Norquist recently told NBC News.
That scenario will leave some Republican leaders on their own cliff, trying to decide if they need to move closer to the tea party, or farther away.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, and incoming Texas Senator Ted Cruz are some of the more prominent names linked to the loosely organized movement.
Ironically, North Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who has moved away from her tea party roots, will pick DeMint’s replacement in the Senate.
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Rubio is one of the current frontrunners for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. Experts believe Rubio will need to broaden his appeal to compete with a potentially loaded field of Republican candidates.
Paul has also endorsed some positions on immigration that don’t exactly match common tea party philosophies.
So who could possibly run as a pure tea party candidate in 2016?
Sarah Palin has openly discussed the need for something like a third party to serve as a platform for ideas from the conservative base.
But the Los Angeles Times recently floated out the name of another possible candidate in 2012: Jim DeMint.
“I think the Heritage Foundation can give him a better platform than being a minority member of the Senate,” said Mike Dennehy, a GOP strategist in New Hampshire, told the Times. “But this is all predicated on how and where he takes Heritage. I do think he has the potential of being a viable candidate to win the nomination.”