DeMint a Mentor for SC Freshmen

June 7, 2011
Press Release

Washington can be a heady place for a freshman, especially when you share a home state with a tea party kingpin who can make or break a conservative rookie.

The South Carolina freshmen — Tim Scott, Mick Mulvaney, Trey Gowdy and Jeff Duncan — have leaned on one another as they navigate Congress, but they’ve also gotten some help from one of the most well-known and iconoclastic members of the Senate: Jim DeMint.

The freshmen give DeMint’s guidance positive reviews, but they don’t deny that the senator’s an outsize figure in South Carolina.

The unspoken reality is that no South Carolina Republican wants to run against a candidate endorsed byDeMint. He helped deliver a new class of ultraconservatives to office this fall by backing fiercely conservative candidates. The four newcomers want that seal of approval.

“You’d be politically naive if you vote differently from Sen. DeMint and can’t explain why,” said Gowdy, the lone political newcomer in the delegation. “Now, I have, but he gives us the courtesy of [explaining] the other side. Not in a condescending, ‘you guys had better watch out’ kind of way. Sometimes his response is, ‘Either vote is defensible. Do what you think is right.’”

In the delegation, DeMint serves as a sort of movement godfather, consulting House members on vote choices and the finer points of life in Washington — including the role of faith in public office. When Mulvaney challenged incumbent Democrat John Spratt, DeMint donated to his campaign and stumped for him. And when the House was debating whether to kill the second joint strike fighter engine, the freshmen gathered in Mulvaney’s office and called DeMint on speakerphone to seek his advice. It wasn’t the first time they’ve consulted the conservative kingmaker on a vote.

The freshmen say DeMint doesn’t tell them how to vote — and doesn’t have to. But few deny his influence within the delegation.

“He casts a huge shadow, but it’s not because he tries to. He’s enormously popular within the Republican Conference,” said Gowdy, whose district includes DeMint’s Greenville home and whose colleagues sometimes tease that he might never be the most conservative member of his district.

South Carolina GOP consultant Chip Felkel said that, in the state’s rarefied world of conservatism, DeMint has “provided the benefit of his experience so far, and they’ve gravitated toward him. He’s been very helpful to them.”

“There’s no doubt he’s a mentor to all of us on the conservative side,” Duncan said.

But the freshmen have also received extensive outreach from South Carolina’s other senator, Lindsey Graham, who, like DeMint, has worked closely with them on funding for a study on the cost of deepening the Port of Charleston and on dual-track legislation addressing the National Labor Relations Board’s recent complaint against Boeing for building planes at a nonunionized factory in the Palmetto State. Scott said he hears from Graham about once a week.

The freshmen have nothing but positive things to say about their senior colleagues, but former Gov. Jim Hodges, a Democrat, sees the relationships as a little more complicated.

“For a senior incumbent, there’s nothing worse than a group of ambitious young guys in your party in the House,” Hodges said. “They probably want to encourage them to be successful but not too successful. You’ve got this cadre of young conservatives — unless they’re on leadership track, there’s little opportunity for them to run for anything else in the state except Senate.

Scott says the senators and their staffs have been helpful to the rookie lawmakers.“They’ve reached out to us as much as we’ve reached out to them,” he said.

The freshmen have developed particularly tight bonds. Three of them — Duncan, Scott and Mulvaney — served together in the state Legislature. Both Scott and Gowdy belonged to the South Carolina-based Liberty Fellowship before coming to Washington. All four often dine together on Capitol Hill and play basketball. Duncan and Scott share an apartment.

“We have, I think, a South Carolina-vs.-the-world outlook in basketball,” Mulvaney said. “We’re awful. We get beat all the time. It’s kind of fun.”

Each of the freshmen describes the qualities that make their professional relationships complementary: Gowdy’s a former attorney, Mulvaney’s a budget wonk, Duncan is obsessed with energy and natural resources, and Scott is a small-business ownerwith connections to GOP leadership.

Mulvaney said their unity “really allows us to punch above our weight, because you’ve got this team approach to the issues.”

Their colleagues in the House have taken notice of the group, making them early leaders in their class.

“They’re aggressive in their ways. They’re outdoorsmen, men’s men. And that’s the world I live in. I’m that way. And that attitude, that way about you, helps you when you fight some of these battles. You have to have a certain element of aggressiveness, assertiveness,” said Steve Southerland, a freshman colleague from Florida. “And, at the same time, to know when to throttle back.”

The lesson from their senators, Mulvaney said, is that “you’ve got to have an independent streak. They’ve encouraged us to be true to that.”

The freshmen have proved a reliable, staunchly conservative bloc, rarely breaking ranks. (Mulvaney did break with his colleagues to vote for an accelerated timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan; Duncan disagreed with his colleagues by voting against an extension of certain Patriot Act provisions.) “We do talk if we’re going to vote differently, because South Carolina is small, and we’re going to be asked,” Gowdy said.

But at other times, their unity comes at the expense of agreement with leadership, as with the late-night deal to keep the government funded through the rest of the year. They joined 23 of their freshman colleagues in voting against it.

“I know it’s been frustrating to our leadership sometimes, because they look at South Carolina and say, ‘What are these crazy guys going to do now?’ But all we’re doing is being true to our state,” Mulvaney said.

Duncan said of their leaders, “They’ve gotten the message very clearly early on from us. They know we’re going to talk; we’re going to try to be like-minded when it comes to representing South Carolina.”

Still, the comparisons seem inevitable.

“They all seem to vote the same way that Jim votes,” said GOP consultant Warren Tompkins.

Manu Raju and Jake Sherman contributed to this report.