South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint's decision to leave the U.S. Senate next month gives the tea party favorite a new national platform, poses a challenge for S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley and sets off a scramble among would-be successors.
In a surprise move, DeMint, 61, announced Thursday that he would step down in January, four years before the end of his second term, to become president of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
"I'm leaving the Senate now, but I'm not leaving the fight," he said in a statement.
Haley will appoint a successor to serve for the next two years. Among the names floated: Republican U.S. Reps. Mick Mulvaney, a former Charlotte lawyer who lives in Indian Land, S.C., and Tim Scott of Charleston, who would be the only African-American in the Senate.
DeMint, sometimes called "Sen. Tea Party," has been a champion of fiscal conservatives but often a thorn in the side of his party's establishment.
This week, for example, he criticized GOP House Speaker John Boehner's proposal to agree to $800 million in new revenues to avert the so-called fiscal cliff.
"Speaker Boehner's $800 billion tax hike will destroy American jobs and allow politicians in Washington to spend even more," DeMint said, "while not reducing our $16 trillion debt by a single penny."
DeMint was often strident in attacking Democrats. The health care debate, he once predicted, would be President Barack Obama's "Waterloo." He called Obama the "world's best salesman of socialism."
DeMint's move should bring a hefty pay hike. The current Heritage president, Ed Fuelner, earned over $1 million in 2010. Senators make $174,000. But some supporters say the decision isn't about money.
"That's never been a reason for him," said David Woodard, a Clemson University political scientist who co-authored a book with DeMint. "He's a policy hound. He loves doing policy."
Platform to spread tea party beliefs
DeMint, from Greenville, S.C., was elected to the U.S. House in 1998. He was elected to the Senate in 2004 and re-elected in 2010. He'd already announced that he wouldn't run for a third term.
After November's election, he faced the prospect of a Senate in which Democrats expanded their control, in part, say critics, because DeMint backed tea party candidates who went on to lose.
Heritage, on the other hand, offers a high-profile perch from which to push conservative ideas and expand his national network.
"This gives him a platform nationally to address the tea party-leaning crowd across the country, to build a network if he wants to jump in as the further-right Republican candidate in the 2016 presidential race," said Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at Winthrop University.
Thomas Saunders, chairman of the Heritage board of directors, said DeMint will build on the group's standing as "the flagship organization of the entire conservative movement."
"Jim DeMint has shown that principled conservatism remains a winning political philosophy," Saunders said. "His passion for rigorous research, his dedication to the principles of our nation's founding and his ability to translate policy ideas into action make him an ideal choice to lead Heritage to even greater success."
Some leading conservative activists around the country had prodded DeMint to run for president this year, but he said he wanted to remain in the Senate and help elect true conservatives to the chamber.
His Senate Conservatives Fund gave millions of dollars to candidates, some of whom took on candidates backed by the Republican establishment in primaries.
DeMint helped Sens. Marco Rubio and Pat Toomey win in 2010. But critics say he helped cost Republicans control of the Senate by backing fringe candidates who lost general election runs in 2010 as well as in 2012.
This year his political action committee transferred $500,000 to Club for Growth, an influential free-market advocacy group based in Washington with long-standing ties to DeMint. The Club ran a hard-hitting TV ad against veteran GOP Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, who lost a primary to a tea party-backed candidate -- who went on to lose to a Democrat.
Haley faces thorny choice
Haley told reporters Thursday that she wouldn't appoint herself to the seat.
"No, I will not be appointing myself," she said. "That is not even an option, not something I am considering at all."
But the vacancy leaves her with a thorny choice. Will she appoint someone who could fill the seat for years? Or a caretaker who would agree not to run in 2014?
"I hope it's someone who can serve for two years and not run again," said York County GOP Chairman Glenn McCall, one of the state's two national party committee members.
Former state party chair Katon Dawson agrees. He said Haley should name someone who "doesn't drink the Potomac water."
But Mulvaney, who just won a second term, said "the critical point is not for how long she appoints somebody but who she appoints."
"Certainly we'll let her know we're interested," he said. "We'll count on her judgment to do what's best for the state."
Thursday's announcement came a day after a Winthrop Poll showed that 41 percent of South Carolinians disapprove of Haley's job performance versus 38 percent who approve. The rest weren't sure or refused to answer.
DeMint's decision means South Carolina will have two U.S. Senate contests in 2014: The race for DeMint's unexpired term and the expected re-election race of second-term Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham.
That could help Graham, often a target of conservative critics.
"It makes it a lot easier for him," said Woodard, the Clemson political scientist. "He was in the crosshairs. There were people really gunning for him ...
"It makes it a little more palatable to think you could live with Lindsey Graham if you had a real conservative in the DeMint seat."
DeMint's departure will create the state's first midterm Senate vacancy in almost a half century.
In 1965, Gov. Donald Russell, a Democrat, stepped down to be appointed to the vacancy caused by the death of Olin Johnston. Russell was succeeded by Democrat Ernest "Fritz" Hollings. Hollings left office in early 2005, replaced by DeMint. Staff researcher Maria David, The (Columbia) State, Associated Press, and Washington Post contributed.
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