DeMint Surprise Exit Sets Up S.C. Scramble

Jessica Taylor December 6, 2012 · 1:46 PM EDT

South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint’s shocking news on Thursday that he would step down from the Senate to lead The Heritage Foundation sets off an uncertain scramble in the Palmetto State for virtually all of the state’s top three offices in 2014.

With DeMint, a second-term senator who’s been an outspoken conservative and often a thorn in the political establishment’s side, set to resign, Gov. Nikki Haley (R) will appoint a successor who will serve until the next scheduled election in 2014. There would then be an election for the remaining two years on DeMint’s term, and that person would again be up in 2016. The state’s senior senator, Republican Lindsey Graham, and Haley herself are both up for reelection in 2014.

According to one South Carolina source, DeMint has told Haley he would like to see freshman Rep. Tim Scott appointed to fill his seat. A black Republican from Charleston, Scott is very much in the same ideological mold of DeMint, and would be the only African-American in the Senate and only the second black Republican senator since Reconstruction.

With most plugged-in South Carolina Republicans expressing a state of shock over DeMint’s announcement, many caution it will be several days before the dust clears and serious names begin to emerge. The news came as a surprise to most Republicans. According to one source, DeMint approached the Heritage Foundation a few months ago about possibly leading the organization.

Haley, who’s had an antagonistic relationship with several state Republicans, will most likely appoint an ally, but whether that is as a temporary caretaker or someone who would run for reelection isn’t immediately clear. Possible names, in addition to Scott, include her deputy chief of staff and former state Rep.Ted Pitts, state Rep. Nathan Ballentine, former state Attorney General Henry McMaster, former state GOP Chairman Katon Dawson, fomer House Speaker and Ambassador to Canada David Wilkins, or any of the state’s congressional representatives. 

The most buzzed about choice now appears to be Scott, but if Haley chooses to appoint a caretaker, McMaster is currently the leading name in the state. While the two were opponents in the 2010 gubernatorial primary, he endorsed her in the runoff and worked heavily on her behalf, and the two have continued to have a very good relationship. 

If Haley foregoes the Senate and runs for reelection in 2014, she could face a more difficult path than expected. Many in the state believe state Treasurer Curtis Loftis may be thinking about primarying the governor, and state Sen. Vincent Sheheen (D), who lost to Haley by just four points in 2010, is expected by many to run again. 

There is some speculation that Haley could appoint herself to the open position. While the South Carolina State Elections Commission didn’t see an immediate problem in the governor appointing herself in their reading of the law, but there appears to be some precedent for Haley not being able to designate herself to the Senate. In 1965, Democratic Gov. Donald Russell resigned and the incoming Gov. Robert McNair (D) appointed him to the Senate following the death of Sen. Olin Johnston (D). But Russell then lost in the 1966 special primary election to Democrat Fritz Hollings.

Based on that interpretation, Haley may first have to first resign as governor and have Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, who would then ascend to governor, appoint her. McConnell himself assumed the state’s number two position earlier this year when Ken Ard resigned in March after investigations into his campaign finances.

Other names to watch for who may run in the special election include state Sen. Tom Davis, former Gov. Mark Sanford’s former chief of staff who has been contemplating a primary challenge to Graham. While some believed Davis was waning on challenging Graham, South Carolina sources cautioned there was still interest from the conservative state legislator, though the simultaneous opening could change many potential Graham foes’ thinking. And many state Republicans caution Graham, who has a more moderate and pragmatic reputation than DeMint, should not be underestimated and most believe he would ultimately survive a primary challenge if it comes to that. There's been speculation that Sanford would like to return to politics after falling from grace after his affair and divorce, but many sources in the state remain skeptial. Also, while he and Haley were once close, one source notes that relationship has deteriorated and, while he'd be a longshot anyway, a Sanford appointment, even without thinking about the baggage, would be unlikely. 

Former Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, who ran against Haley for governor and who she actively campaigned against in a congressional primary this year, told the Report he wasn’t likely to run.  

Updated at 4 p.m. EST