COLUMBIA, SC — Gov. Nikki Haley must weigh whether the next U.S. senator from South Carolina will be Jim DeMint’s successor or just hold DeMint’s seat until a special election in 2014.
DeMint’s sudden resignation Thursday caught state politicos off guard, but that did not slow speculation about who the first-term GOP governor might choose to succeed Sen. Tea Party.
U.S. Rep. Tim Scott – a North Charleston Republican and, like DeMint, a Tea Party favorite – received much of the early attention.
DeMint told Haley that Scott, the only African-American Republican in Congress, was his choice as his successor, according to sources close to the senator.
Other possible DeMint successors, mentioned by political observers, include Republican U.S. Reps. Mick Mulvaney of Indian Land and Trey Gowdy of Spartanburg.
But Haley also could choose to name someone who might be willing to serve for two years and not run in 2014 to fill the final two years of DeMint’s term, which expires in 2016. The favorites then would include former S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster, R-Columbia, and former U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Wilkins, R-Greenville.
“Jim DeMint, in my mind, is not replaceable,” Haley said during a radio station interview Thursday. “We need to stick with someone who is conservative and strong and is a fighter.”
Haley ruled herself out.
She would need to resign and win appointment from Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, who would be elevated to governor.
That strategy has not worked well in the past.
After U.S. Sen. Olin Johnston died in 1965, then-Gov. Donald Russell resigned and was appointed senator. But Russell was defeated the next year by Charleston Democrat Fritz Hollings when the two ran for the remainder of Johnston’s term.
"No, I will not be appointing myself,” Haley said in the radio interview. “That is not even an option, not something I am considering at all.”
Haley’s family commitments argue against any interest in the Senate seat. Haley has two school-age children, and her husband is slated to start a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan with the National Guard next month.
The governor did not provide a timetable for making a choice, saying only, “My goal is not to make it drag out.”
Haley might have little choice except to name DeMint’s choice – Scott, a well-liked congressman who won his seat in 2010 with Tea Party backing, said a veteran S.C. political operative who asked not to be identified to maintain political relationships in the state.
If appointed by Haley, Scott would be the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction.
“She’s boxed in,” the operative said. “Any choice will be compared to (Scott).”
Scott did not deny Thursday that he would accept DeMint’s seat if Haley offers.
“I don’t want to be coy, but I would say if she calls, I’ll give her an answer,” Scott told The (Charleston) Post and Courier. “I’m going to keep all my speculation as to what is going to happen to myself.”
Mulvaney already had an interest in DeMint’s seat, based on the senator’s statements that he would not seek re-election in 2016. Mulvaney said Thursday that Haley should select someone from the state’s seven-member congressional delegation, which includes six Republicans. Mulvaney told The (Rock Hill) Herald that would not seek the appointment but would not refuse it if offered.
Mulvaney has backers.
State Sen. Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican with Tea Party ties, said he backs Mulvaney, based on his grasp of fiscal issues. Davis, whose name also was raised in some circles, said he has told the governor’s office that he was not interested in DeMint’s post.
Gowdy said Haley should consider other members of the S.C. delegation – putting Scott and Mulvaney first on his list.
“I pray the Lord will give her wisdom,” he said.
Wilkins, a former S.C. House speaker and Haley ally, said he has not talked with the governor’s office about the position.
“I have no indication I would get a call,” he said. “I have not expressed interest.”
Efforts to reach McMaster, co-chair of Haley’s ethics reform commission and another Haley ally, were unsuccessful Thursday.
Many on social media had their own favorite, trying to draft TV satirist Stephen Colbert. The Charleston native and occasional presidential candidate did not shy away from the attention, saying he looks forward to Haley’s call.
“I can neither confirm nor deny anything or anyone that may arise in fervent support of what many are calling ‘Stephen Colbert’s Appointment with Destiny,’ ” Colbert said in a statement released by “The Colbert Show.”