South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint's resignation from the Senate at the beginning of January to serve as president of the Heritage Foundation suddenly creates a groundswell of political activity in South Carolina. There will be a flurry of feverish lobbying from ambitious Republicans looking to succeed DeMint, which could lead to a messy Republican free-for-all in the June 2014 primary. Gov. Nikki Haley, who gets to play kingmaker, is also up for re-election and faces her own challenges, both among Republicans and with the broader South Carolina electorate. And GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham still can't take a primary challenge on his right flank for granted, even as the DeMint news potentially distracts GOP opponents away from his race.
The biggest beneficiary from the domino effect is GOP Rep. Tim Scott, who's getting the most buzz as a potential DeMint successor. He's a down-the-line conservative with support from both the establishment and Tea Party wings. DeMint reportedly let Haley know that Scott was his choice. Appointing him would also be a historic occasion: He'd be the only African-American serving in the Senate, and the first black politician to hold a Senate seat in the South since Reconstruction. He also could provide Haley with some political benefits of her own, generating excitement with the base as she faces the possibility of a GOP primary challenger in 2014. For Haley, picking a Charleston-area candidate would also make political sense; her numbers in that media market are relatively weak, picking Scott could shore up her standing there.
Scott sent out a statement thanking DeMint for his service and saying that, "Looking forward, Governor Haley will now appoint a new Senator, and I know she will make the right choice both for South Carolina and the nation."
The negatives for picking Scott: There's a deep bench of ambitious Republicans who could easily be annoyed that they were bypassed. Haley needs as much Republican support as possible heading into her re-election. If she felt she was making more enemies than friends by tapping a successor (not a foregone conclusion), she might appoint a caretaker instead - former state Attorney General Henry McMaster is the most prominent name mentioned to play that role.
Meanwhile, several South Carolina GOP operatives floated the possibility that Haley could appoint herself to the Senate seat. Technically, she'd have to resign as governor and then work an agreement with the lieutenant governor (Glenn McConnell) to appoint her to the Senate. It's happened two times in the last 60 years in South Carolina history (1954 and 1965). On both occasions, the former governor lost in the subsequent primary.
Why would Haley make such a risky move? It would be borne out of weakness, out of fear she could face a tougher-than-expected re-election campaign. Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, who came within four points of beating her in a banner year for Republicans in 2010, could run again, and give her a lot of trouble. Haley's job approval is underwater at 38 percent among registered voters, according to a Winthrop University poll out this week.
(Check out Hotline editor-in-chief Reid Wilson's full crop of possibilities for DeMint replacements here.)
The DeMint resignation also carries significant ramifications for Graham, one of the Republicans senators most vulnerable to a conservative primary challenge in 2014. He has taken heat for his stances on climate change and immigration reform, and most recently stirred controversy with his comments expressing a willingness to violate Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge. Ironically, the resignation of tea party icon DeMint could spare his colleague that challenge from the right. It distracts attention away from him at the best possible time. Rumored primary challengers, like state Sen. Tom Davis, may prefer to run in a free-for-all primary for DeMint's seat than face the burden of ousting an incumbent with deep pockets. (Graham has already stockpiled $4 million for his next race.)
One thing's for certain: Mark June 2014 down on the primary calendar. It's going to be a doozy of a political cycle in South Carolina.