South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint announced today that he’ll be stepping down from the Senate in January to head the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. His replacement, who will face reelection in 2014, will be appointed by Republican governor Nikki Haley. Congressman Tim Scott seems to be the insta-front-runner, as DeMint has personally encouraged Haley to endorse him, and despite his lack of experience — Scott has served in Congress for all of eleven months — his elevation to the Senate would help the Republicans with that glaring diversity problem of theirs.
There’s also talk that Haley, whose governorship isn’t going too swimmingly these days, could appoint herself to the Senate. It’s possible, sure, but it’s worth pointing out that this exact speculation always surfaces during Senate vacancies— see David Paterson, Charlie Crist, etc. — but never actually pans out. Or, at least, it hasn’t since 1977.
DeMint had previously declared that he wouldn’t be running for a third term, but his decision to leave four years before his second term expired came as a surprise. So why now? Although DeMint is something akin to a tea-party Founding Father in the Senate, other tea-party senators, such as Rand Paul, have gained prominence in recent years, and the movement has, at this point, been fully absorbed into the GOP. You could even say that DeMint’s success at pushing the tea party into the GOP mainstream made his own continued presence in the Senate somewhat unnecessary. Considering that, an opening at the Heritage Foundation could have been hard to pass up: The job pays $1 million a year, compared to a senator’s salary of $174,000.