Did Jim DeMint help or hurt the GOP?

It's a question that lies at the heart of the party's debate over how to return to power

Jim DeMint
(Image credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Jim DeMint, the outgoing senator from South Carolina, is one of the Republican Party's most polarizing figures. The Tea Party champion has used his considerable influence in conservative circles — as well as the financial resources of his super PAC — to back hardcore conservatives in Republican primaries, with mixed results. He can claim credit for nurturing up-and-coming political talents, including Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who hailed DeMint as the "first person in Washington who believed in me — and invested in me." But DeMint has also backed a string of right-wing, borderline nutty candidates who defeated their more moderate primary opponents, but went on to lose in the general election. As a result, DeMint's sudden resignation from the Senate has prompted a debate over his legacy, which parallels the debate over how the GOP should respond to President Obama's decisive re-election victory.

Erick Erickson at Red State makes the case that DeMint helped the GOP by making it more conservative. Without DeMint "we would not have a Republican establishment that now worries conservatives might actually primary them," he writes. "Without Jim DeMint we would still have a conservative movement that is part and parcel the Republican Party in name, word, and deed. DeMint showed the Republican Party can be challenged from within."

Jennifer Rubin at The Washington Post begs to differ, saying DeMint's ideological inflexibility has cramped the party and snarled business in the Senate. "I am sure many senators on both sides are clicking their heels," she writes. "DeMint has been a destructive force, threatening to primary colleagues, resisting all deals, and offering very little in the way of attainable legislation. He has contributed more than any current senator to the dysfunction of that body." She adds: "His departure leaves other senators who seemed impressed with his brand of politics free to find their way to a more constructive position in the body."

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The takedown by Rubin, a vocal Mitt Romney supporter, has not gone over well with some conservatives, including talk show host Mark Levin:

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The argument over DeMint, like so many arguments within the Republican Party these days, boils down to whether the GOP should moderate or unleash a purer brand of conservatism. In the pursuit of the latter, no senator in recent years has matched DeMint's impact. "His allies insist that he did nothing short of transform the Republican Senate Conference from a center-right body into a conservative one," says Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post.

And it appears that DeMint is perfectly aware of his clout in the party. When asked by Rush Limbaugh whether he had been pushed out by House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio), DeMint responded, "It might work a little bit the other way, Rush."

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