Jim DeMint joins the list of the 10 most influential ultraconservative senators of modern times

Jim DeMint’s stunning departure from the Senate this morning to head up the conservative Heritage Foundation takes the leader of the far-right wing of the Republican Party out of the Senate.

Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is breathing a sigh of relief now that his intraparty nemesis is gone. At least gone from the Senate.

The South Carolina senator became force to be reckoned with by his flat refusal to compromise on his bedrock principles and his eagerness to challenge establishment Republican candidates in GOP primaries.

Love him or loathe him, DeMint has been effective. Who are some of the other most influential ultraconservative senators of the past half century? Here are nine others to join DeMint on our top ten list:

Jesse Helms, North Carolina

The man whistled “Dixie” when he was on the Capitol elevator with the first African American woman ever elected to the Senate. He ran racially charged TV ads against a black Democratic opponent. He was the last overt segregationist to win a seat in the Senate and he didn’t mellow with age. But he sure got things done, scaring Democratic and Republican presidents alike on foreign policy matters.

Strom Thurmond, South Carolina

Unlike Helms, Thurmond whole-heartedly repudiated his segregationist past. But that didn’t make him a squishy moderate. The 1948 Dixiecrat presidential candidate was a bulwark against liberal judicial nominees and one of the coldest of the cold warriors.

Phil Gramm, Texas

He was the most conservative Democrat in Congress, switched parties and became one of the most conservative Republicans in Congress. This Texas Aggie economist was a fiscal conservative with a capital “C.” He never met a domestic spending program that couldn’t be cut. Or eliminated. And his Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-cutting law was the first effective tool enacted by Congress to balance the federal budget.

Barry Goldwater, Arizona

The author of the best-selling “Conscience of a Conservative,” he was the Godfather of the modern conservative movement. His 1964 presidential campaign proudly embraced “extremism in the defense of liberty.” He was such a military hawk that President Lyndon Johnson convinced America that he might just blow up the world if he got elected president. But Goldwater’s libertarian leanings — he came to believe that government should stay out of people’s bedrooms as well as their boardroom’s — would probably exclude him from the conservative movement today. It’s no surprise that his son, former California congressman Barry Goldwater Jr., was a big Ron Paul supporter.

John Stennis, Mississippi

The last of the Dixiecrats survived late into the 20th century before yielding to a Republican, Trent Lott, in 1988. He fought against civil rights. He fought against peaceniks in his own party. He fought against union influence. He was against government spending except if it was for the military or for Mississippi. He was an old-fashioned, unreconstructed Southern Democrat, an extinct species.

Jim Inhofe, Oklahoma

He has been a powerful voice against environmentalism and the bane of climate-change activists. The top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, he had a running dispute with Bill Clinton’s EPA administrator, Carol Browner, who he viewed as a combination of World War II villains, Tokyo Rose and the Gestapo. He dismisses the argument that human actions are responsible for global warming as  “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”

Sam Brownback, Kansas

His 2008 presidential run was a disaster, but Brownback was a leading social conservative on Capitol Hill (and now as governor of Kansas). He chaired the weekly meetings of the Values Action Team on Capitol Hill. Unlike other hard-right lawmakers, he showed a willingness to work across party lines with partners including the late Sens. Ted Kennedy (on border security) and Paul Wellstone (on human trafficking) and then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama (on Sudanese genocide).

Rand Paul, Kentucky

It may be too early to add the son of Texas Rep. Ron Paul to the list, but the freshman senator of Kentucky has been an influential voice of the libertarian right in his first two years in the Senate. With DeMint’s departure, he’s likely to become even more visible as the leader of the Tea Party right in the Senate.

Conrad Burns, Montana

A genial former auctioneer, this hard-right Republican helped a lot of fellow Republicans raise lots of campaign cash, but he was limited by his gaffe-making proclivities. As recounted in the Almanac of American Politics, he described Arabs as “ragheads” and warned of enemies who “drive taxicabs in the daytime and kill at night.” During his losing re-election campaign of 2006, he presciently noted, “I can self-destruct in one sentence. Sometimes in one word.”