Washington • Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a luminary of the right and a role model for Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, said Thursday he's stepping down from his seat in January to head up the conservative Heritage Foundation.
DeMint's exit from the Senate was unexpected, though he leaves behind several newcomers, including the new Utah senator, who have joined with DeMint in clashing with Republican leaders and hold allegiance to the ideas he has pushed in recent years such as passing a balanced budget amendment and repealing the Affordable Care Act.
"Jim has been a source of inspiration for many of us who came to Washington to fight for our core conservative beliefs," Lee said Thursday. "He has shown that getting things done doesn't have to mean abandoning your principles."
Lee and DeMint have co-sponsored eight pieces of legislation during their time in the Senate together, and DeMint recruited Lee to form the Senate Tea Party Caucus along with Sens. Jerry Moran and Rand Paul.
After then-Sen. Bob Bennett's defeat at the GOP convention in 2010, DeMint helped Lee win his primary battle against Tim Bridgewater, spending more than $200,000 on polling and ads to bolster Lee's bid through DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund.
"Round here," Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, famously told The New Republic in 2010, "people are already calling [Lee] Senator Junior DeMint."
In fact, the legacy of DeMint might be his ability to find and support new young conservatives that fit in his mold, Republicans who aren't afraid to go against party leaders and fight for issues without regard for consequence.
Lee who led a lonely protest against all of Obama's nominees earlier this year, joined occasionally by DeMint notes the Senate now has a small army of folks who can carry DeMint's issues forward: Paul, Texas' Ted Cruz, Arizona's Jeff Flake, Wisconsin's Ron Johnson, Pennsylvania's Pat Toomey and Florida's Marco Rubio.
"There are a lot of people now in the Senate who share a lot of Jim DeMint's political ideology," Lee said.
Lee isn't sure what's to come of the Senate Tea Party Caucus, which will be down to three members after DeMint's departure.
"There's not really a need for a formal structure around it," Lee said.