Las Vegas Sun

September 24, 2016

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Sharron Angle at home in Jim DeMint faction

Her taped reference to senator’s influence highlights tight bond

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Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., has morphed into a national champion of Tea Party-backed conservatives.

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Sharron Angle speaks during a Senate candidate forum for Angle and Sen. Harry Reid on Sept. 23 at Faith Lutheran High School.

Audio Clip

  • Listen to the Angle-Ashjian sit-down

If Sharron Angle unseats Harry Reid, the Nevada delegation will go from having the influence of official majority leadership to being under the influence of a different kind of leader — the man emerging as the Republican Party’s de facto kingmaker, Jim DeMint.

The South Carolina senator became a household name in Nevada this week after an audiotape was released in which Republican U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle told rival candidate Jon Scott Ashjian that her close relationship with DeMint is currency in Washington.

“I have juice with him … I go to Washington, D.C., and want to see Jim DeMint, he’s right there for me,” Angle said to Ashjian on the tape.

Angle’s statement gave a glimpse of how the former assemblywoman, known for her isolation in the Nevada Legislature, sees herself fitting into official Washington.

In the 2010 midterm election, DeMint is wielding considerable influence as the face of the Senate Conservatives PAC, which is helping to fund candidacies of Tea Party-backed Republicans in close Senate races across the country.

One of those Republicans is Angle, to whom DeMint’s political action committee has given $538,000. Among the rest are hopefuls Angle sees as her comrades in arms in a bid to — according to that same taped conversation — defy the “machine in the Republican Party (that) is fighting against me” and “shake this mess up.”

Angle’s list of DeMint-backed candidates includes Alaska’s Joe Miller, Colorado’s Ken Buck, Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell and Florida’s Marco Rubio — staunch conservatives who support a repeal of the health care bill, privatization of Social Security, and have called for constitutional amendments to cut spending and impose term limits.

If that band succeeds in getting to Washington, DeMint will be their conductor — and if he delivers enough protégés, the cues he gives could cause considerable power shifts in the Republican caucus.

DeMint started backing Tea Party candidates during the primaries, including endorsing candidates challenging the picks of his party’s leaders — such as Rand Paul in Kentucky who was running against Trey Grayson.

DeMint’s endorsement of Angle came only after her unexpected Nevada primary victory.

He has expressed confidence that if the Republicans stage a comeback in the Senate and become a powerful minority — or even take back the majority — it will be because of his picks.

“The only reason we have a chance at the majority right now is in large part for the candidates I’ve been supporting,” he told CNN last month.

However, the Tea Partyers — with DeMint as their leader — are exposing divisions among Republicans.

“In 2010, what we will have on the Republican side is a real division between the Tea Party fundamentalists, led by DeMint, a couple of moderates, and the rest of the mainstream conservatives,” said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Within Congress, DeMint champions a fiscally and socially conservative agenda through his chairmanship of the Senate’s conservative Republican Steering Committee, a group that holds weekly meetings and policy lunches for the party caucus. Nevada’s other senator, John Ensign — a former roommate of DeMint’s in the now-infamous “C Street” house — serves as second in command on the committee.

DeMint has not shied away from more public attempts to wield influence. Along with Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn — another C Streeter — he is one of the most liberal users of a Senate procedure known as a “hold,” which can block the consideration of legislation outright. DeMint recently threatened to use such a mechanism to block any bills not made publicly available at least two days before the Senate adjourned for its pre-election recess.

Those go-it-alone tactics have created friction in the GOP between official caucus leaders and unflinching opposition purists such as DeMint and Coburn who both sides are fitfully trying to ignore for the remainder of the election cycle.

“It’s a shotgun wedding. Both parties are stuck with each other whether they like it or not,” Nevada Republican strategist Chuck Muth said. “Angle would love to be able to thumb her nose at the party establishment. But the fact is she does need them.”

The first such display of public face took place when Angle went to Washington this week to attend National Republican Senatorial Committee-sponsored fundraising events, despite having had her taped comments of disdain for the party’s leaders publicly aired only days before.

Whether those tensions will turn into outright divisions in the Senate depends on how big DeMint’s camp delivers on Election Night.

If Republicans take the majority, those cracks could start to come to the surface, experts say. If they simply emerge a very strong minority, it’s likely that the need to form a strong opposition to Democrats will be enough of a cohesive force to keep party factions glued together.

“It’s easier to remain unified if you’re in the minority than in the majority,” Nevada Republican strategist Robert Uithoven said. “That’s why a lot of people in Republican circles don’t want the Republicans to take control of either chamber … If they do, that gives the president something to campaign against in 2012. If they come just short … that’s a win enough. They can then focus on taking the White House.”

In either circumstance, DeMint is not expected to make a direct challenge to Mitch McConnell’s party leadership.

But the lack of an official mark of authority won’t necessarily keep potential Tea Party newbies from turning to DeMint as their Sherpa of choice nonetheless.

“There is the technical leadership, and then there is the de facto leadership,” Muth said. “Angle is going to fit in perfectly with Coburn and

DeMint, and they’re going to have an enormous amount of influence over her as a senator.”

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