If there's one thing you can count on in politics, it's that an unexpected twist will come out of South Carolina. Sen. Jim DeMint's surprise announcement today that he'll quit the Senate to run the Heritage Foundation is but the latest curveball to get Palmetto State politicos buzzing. It's up to Gov. Nikki Haley to name DeMint's replacement, and a quick canvass of our sources establishes a pretty solid list of early contenders.
The names we heard, in rough order of their chances:
Rep. Mick Mulvaney wants to be a senator. The second-term Republican, who knocked off Democrat John Spratt in 2010, has been seen as a likely statewide candidate even before he won office.
Former Attorney General Henry McMaster could play the role of caretaker before a successor is elected in a 2014 special election. McMaster lost to Haley in the 2010 gubernatorial primary, but he endorsed Haley in the runoff and the two have a good relationship (McMaster's press secretary in 2010, Rob Godfrey, went to work for Haley and still works as her official press secretary).
State Rep. Nathan Ballentine was Haley's closest confidante in the state House, at a time when she didn't have a lot of allies. He's the dark horse.
Rep. Tim Scott, another Republican first elected in 2010, would be the lone African American in the Senate if he's elected. But our sources say Scott wants to be governor rather than a senator. CNN's Peter Hamby, an expert on South Carolina Republican politics, agrees on that one. One Republican source who keeps tabs on the state also notes that Haley and Scott share a consultant – pollster Jon Lerner, who also served as former Gov. Mark Sanford’s top political advisor.
Former Rep. Gresham Barrett, who lost to Haley in the gubernatorial runoff in 2010, still has a following among some of the more establishment-type South Carolina Republicans.
Rep. Joe Wilson and his son Alan are longshots. Alan won his first term as South Carolina's attorney general in 2010.
David Wilkins, a big-time Republican fundraiser and President George W. Bush's ambassador to Canada, is always on the list of possible statewide candidates. But Wilkins hasn't pulled the trigger on an actual campaign since he left the state legislature in 2005.
Former South Carolina Republican Party chairman Katon Dawson still wields enormous clout in GOP circles. He has contemplated running for office, and he's not as alienated from Haley as most of the rest of the state party establishment.
Ted Pitts is Haley's deputy chief of staff and another former ally in the state legislature. If Haley wants one of her own in the Senate, Pitts could be a contender.
One person Haley won't pick: State House Speaker Bobby Harrell. Haley has wrestled almost constantly with her own party in the legislature, and she reserves a special disdain for Harrell, the power broker who's given her the most grief. He shouldn't expect a phone call any time soon.
Of course, Haley could always appoint herself. Our sources say that's not out of the question.