When Jim DeMint abruptly resigned from the Senate last year to run the Heritage Foundation, he explained his decision this way: “I honestly think I can do a lot more on the outside than I can on the inside," the South Carolina Republican said in December.
He was right.
From his perch at Heritage, DeMint helped lead the conservative rebellion that successfully pushed Speaker John Boehner to shut down the government over Obamacare.
It was the culmination of a well-funded and months-long campaign against President Obama’s signature legislation. While Obamacare remains unharmed, the efforts laid bare DeMint’s influence over the policy and positions of some Republicans he left behind on Capitol Hill.
On Tuesday, Heritage’s lobbying arm, Heritage Action, urged members to vote against a bill Boehner offered that would have reopened the government. Tea Party members deny they take their marching orders from DeMint or his organization, but Boehner ended up yanking the bill amid opposition from his own caucus.
Inside the Senate, DeMint was notorious for being the conservative thorn in the establishment's side, delaying nominations and launching blistering attacks against Democrats and wavering Republican moderates.
Since leaving, he has spearheaded a transformation at Heritage from a think-tank that pushed policy papers—and originally conceived of the individual mandate—to an aggressive organization that openly embraces the Tea Party and isn't afraid to twist arms.
"Ideas have power, but only if they have power behind those ideas," DeMint said in a January interview. "The Heritage Foundation is presenting the best ideas. Heritage Action is taking those ideas directly to the American people to convince them the ideas are right."
The campaign against Obamacare had been DeMint's defining cause during his final months in the Senate. Heritage provided an ideal and flush platform to take that cause further.
Heritage Action is the recipient of big-dollar donations, including money from conservative billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch. But it also boasts of small-dollar donations and designated citizen sentinels who've brought their cause to the local level.
During the August recess, Heritage Action spent more than $500,000 on ads targeting 100 House Republicans for failing to sign a letter urging Boehner to defund Obamacare. The letter ultimately spurred the Speaker to change his course in support of the crusade and helped pressure Congressional Republicans to aid the fight over protests from some of their GOP colleagues and, ultimately, the majority of the American people.
Meanwhile, DeMint took his anti-Obamacare message on a nine-city August tour organized by Heritage Action. He was joined on the road by a key disciple, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who praised DeMint's principled courage.
DeMint was among the first Republicans to champion Cruz when he was the underdog Senate candidate in Texas. To this day, Cruz credits him for his victory.
"Superman wears Chuck Norris pajamas. And let me tell you, Chuck Norris wears Jim DeMint pajamas!" Cruz said to a cheering crowd of activists in Texas. (Heritage presented the quote in GIF form.)
Such displays have helped Heritage gain traction with Republican members who consider those events to be genuine outpourings of grassroots support to defund Obamacare.
"This was no astro-turfing, This was millions of Americans who were concerned about the country, concerned about Obamacare," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp at a Wednesday panel of conservative House members, organized by the Heritage Foundation the day after Boehner's last-ditch effort to pass a bill failed. "It wasn't driven because folks in Washington and just a few people were saying, 'Hey, go make these phone calls.'"
At the panel, Rep. Raul Labrador pushed back against speculation that Heritage Action had killed Boehner's final proposal, arguing that the votes had not been there in the first place.
DeMint is personally prohibited from directly lobbying his former colleagues for two years. Though he consults with them regularly, he has no formal role in directing Heritage Action, which is legally a separate 501(c)4 organization from the Heritage Foundation.
But there's no denying that DeMint has helped bring his no-holds-barred attitude back to Capitol Hill just months after he had left. It's unclear, however, how much appetite there is left for such tactics among Republicans who've been so badly burned after jumping on his bandwagon.
"Every member of Congress and every member of the Senate gets hit by groups like this all the time, right and left. The question is: How do you handle that pressure?" Sen. Lindsey Graham said when asked about Heritage's impact on the Hill. "I think at the end of the day, the way things self-correct, there will be groups formed to push back. There will be a backlash against this—it's just a matter of time."