U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, the Greenville archconservative, said today that he will resign from the Senate in January to become president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Gov. Nikki Haley will name DeMint’s successor who will serve until 2014, when a special election would be held to fill the final two years of Republican DeMint’s six-year term, the same time U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham is up for re-election.
Immediate speculation turned to U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, R-North Charleston, who, like DeMint, is a Tea Party favorite. Scott also is the only Republican African-American in the U.S. House.
DeMint told Haley that he wanted Scott to replace him, according two sources close to the senator.
Haley might have little choice except to name Scott, a well-liked congressman who would be the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction, said a veteran S.C. political operative who asked not to be identified to maintain relationships in the state.
“She’s boxed in,” the operative said. “Any choice will be compared to (Scott).”
Other possible successors include U.S. Reps. Mick Mulvaney, R-Indian Land, and Trey Gowdy, R-Spartanburg.
Haley also could name a caretaker to the position, someone -- like former S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster, a Haley ally -- who would agree to hold the post for two years but not seek election in 2014.
Haley also could resign, elevating Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell to governor as part of a deal that would entail McConnell then appointing her to the Senate.
But the governor ruled herself out during a S.C. radio station interview Thursday.
"No, I will not be appointing myself,” she said. “That is not even not an option, not something I am considering at all."
The governor did not provide a timetable for making a choice.
“My goal is not to make it drag out," Haley said in the radio interview.
DeMint’s stunning move sets the stage for an explosive 2014 election -- with his position, the governorship and South Carolina’s other U.S. senator, Lindsey Graham -- all on the ballot.
DeMint, 61, had announced earlier that he would not seek a third term.
In a statement, DeMint said: “It's been an honor to serve the people of South Carolina in United States Senate for the past eight years, but now it's time for me to pass the torch to someone else and take on a new role in the fight for America's future.
“I'm leaving the Senate now, but I'm not leaving the fight. I've decided to join The Heritage Foundation at a time when the conservative movement needs strong leadership in the battle of ideas. No organization is better equipped to lead this fight and I believe my experience in public office as well as in the private sector as a business owner will help Heritage become even more effective in the years to come.
“I’m humbled to follow in the footsteps of (retiring Heritage president) Edwin Feulner, who built the most important conservative institution in the nation. He has been a friend and mentor for years and I am honored to carry on his legacy of fighting for freedom.
“My constituents know that being a senator was never going to be my career. I came to Congress as a citizen legislator and I've always been determined to leave it as citizen legislator. South Carolina has a deep bench of conservative leaders and I know Governor Haley will select a great replacement.
“One of the most rewarding things I've done in the Senate is work with the grassroots to help elect a new generation of leaders who have the courage to fight for the principles of freedom that make this country so great. I'm confident these senators will continue the legacy of conservative leaders before them.”
DeMint was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1998. He was elected to the Senate in 2004 and re-elected in 2010.
Initially viewed as ineffective, DeMint became a icon of small-government Republicans, known as Sen. Tea Party, advocating an end to budget earmarks, balancing the budget and reforming entitlements.
In a statement earlier Thursday, Haley said: “U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint has served South Carolina and the national conservative movement exceptionally well. His voice for freedom and limited government has been a true inspiration. On a personal level, I value Jim’s leadership and friendship. Our state’s loss is the Heritage Foundation’s gain.”