What we at The Hotline learned this week:
-- With Sen. Jim DeMint's, R-S.C, surprise resignation, Gov. Nikki Haley has the opportunity to bolster her own political standing by picking Rep. Tim Scott, an African-American conservative well-regarded by the base. The move could help Haley in the Charleston area, one region where she underperforms in the polls. But some signs suggest she may be looking to appoint a caretaker successor instead -- someone like former state Attorney General Henry McMaster. Some South Carolina GOP wags think Haley is mulling a Senate run in 2014 instead of pursuing reelection, and that would be one way to improve her nomination chances.
If Haley appoints Scott, it may be bad news for Sen. Lindsey Graham. South Carolina conservatives with their eyes on a Senate seat may now see his primary next year as the best chance they have to move up in the world. Paging Rep. Mick Mulvaney!
-- John Kerry could be the next senator to leave the upper chamber -- if President Obama taps the Massachusetts Democrat for a cabinet position. Meanwhile, outgoing Sen. Scott Brown had $464,000 left in his warchest post-election (and his campaign says that after some bills are processed, that number will likely end up closer to $150,000 - $200,000). If Kerry does leave for the administration, Brown could soon find himself running in (another) special election. And while the $7 million he came out of the last special with may have deterred some would-be Democratic candidates, his cash on hand now wouldn't likely scare anyone out of a hypothetical race.
But a bid to replace Kerry would mean a whole lot of campaigning for Brown, who first won his seat in the 2010 special and just came up short in a brutal contest against Sen.-elect Elizabeth Warren. Even if Brown were to win a special to replace Kerry next year, he'd have to run again for a full term in 2014 -- his fourth Senate campaign in five years. That's a lot of miles on Brown's signature pickup truck, and it makes us wonder whether the Republican might just wait until 2014 to run for governor.
-- With Sen. Mark Warner and former Rep. Tom Perriello both deciding against seeking the Democratic nomination for Virginia governor, former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe has the field clear to himself. While this will allow him to focus entirely on the general election with a message centering on job growth, as Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is doing on the Republican side with Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling out of the way, McAuliffe's private sector business dealings are already coming under fire.
Notable exceptions withstanding, the Democratic establishment has coalesced around McAuliffe at a larger rate and with more enthusiasm than the GOP establishment has done with Cuccinelli. Both parties would be advised to prepare for the long haul now with their soon-to-be default nominees...for better or worse.
-- In the other big 2013 contest, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's optics this week reflected the line he's treading as a wildly popular governor hoping to maintain the reins of a blue state and defend his national conservative reputation. Lobbying the White House and the Hill for federal aid for Hurricane Sandy recovery, he reconnected with Obama for the first time since the post-Sandy embrace that conservatives complained contributed to Mitt Romney's loss. But while he was out of Trenton, Christie's office announced that he had vetoed the state health exchange that composes a key part of Obama's Affordable Care Act. That dance between FEMA-loving Jersey Shore Savior -- raising taxes on affected towns to help pay for recovery -- on the one hand, and conservative firebrand on the other is one Christie is likely to repeat many times this cycle, especially with a minimum wage bill on his desk that he's expected to veto. His willingness to take such a political risk in a Democratic state is further evidence he's eyeing a bigger stage.
-- While the reasons behind Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's sudden support of right-to-work legislation are open to speculation, what is clear is that his decision will frame his reelection battle in 2014. After two years cultivating a moderate image, Snyder infuriated labor and its allies by jumping on board a lame-duck Republican drive to pass right-to-work. Snyder distanced himself from the firebrand label Gov. Scott Walker earned by limiting collective bargaining rights, but regardless of the policy differences, the optics are the same. As in Wisconsin, protesters stormed the state Capitol and Democratic legislators howled in protest. Snyder's decision is sure to galvanize union activists and Democrats in the near term, and it seems certain to be the framework of their case against him two years from now.
-- Meanwhile, Walker is trying to avoid controversial legislation after surviving a recall challenge last year. This week, the Wisconsin governor distanced himself from GOP proposals for an Arizona-style immigration bill and a measure ending same-day voter registration. With Republicans controlling both chambers of the state legislature and Walker trying to keep the focus on jobs in the next legislative session, the governor may find himself at odds next year with some GOP legislators pushing for broader conservative policy goals.
-- But there's good news for another Wisconsin GOPer this week: Former Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts running for RNC chairman is great fodder for MSNBC, but it ain't going to happen. Current chairman Reince Priebus has locked up all but a small handful of votes, virtually guaranteeing him a second term.
-- American politics is getting more parliamentary in many ways, especially in the decline of split-ticket voting. One important trend defying that change this year is the House popular vote, where the GOP's share runs about six points behind its share of actual seats in the House. The combination of favorable redistricting and regional dominance in the South gives House Republicans a buffer from the popular will of the whole country, something to keep in mind during fiscal negotiations.
-- Whatever confidence Obama is broadcasting on the fiscal cliff debate, the White House signaled a slight shift in its thinking this week. After months of telling agencies, in particular the Pentagon, not to worry too much about the sequester, the White House on Wednesday began advising agencies to put together their plans should the cuts go forward. Though a deal may still be possible, the move was a clear sign of at least one of two things: either talks are taking a dive or the White House expected this to be over by now.
-- District residents had seen fewer news stories about the federal investigation surrounding Mayor Vince Gray over the past few months. Until this week, that is. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the feds have shifted focus, from the illegal shadow campaign run by Gray associates, to concealment of donations to his official campaign. Gray's response to the story -- he says he's "astounded" and "incredulous" -- don't help him politically, but they underscore the fact that, for all the negative press surrounding his aides, not one story or criminal complaint has fingered him as being directly involved. While this has kept Gray out of a courtroom, it hasn't kept him from falling out of favor with voters who will choose their Democratic mayoral candidate in September 2014.