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DeMint Resignation Has Big Implications for Graham, Haley

DeMint Resignation Has Big Implications for Graham, Haley

By Scott Conroy - December 7, 2012

Just about everyone who works in South Carolina politics was taken aback by Jim DeMint’s announcement Thursday that he will resign his Senate seat in January to become president of the Heritage Foundation.

There was no shortage of theories about why the influential conservative stalwart decided to leave his office with four years remaining in his second term

Whether it was a desire to affect his agenda from outside the confines of a minority party on Capitol Hill, the hefty increase in his paycheck that he is now likely to receive, a long-term strategy to seek opportunities for national office, or all of the above, there is no doubt that the implications of DeMint’s departure will be far-reaching on both state and national levels.

The most immediate task now falls upon South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley -- who is herself up for re-election in 2014 -- to appoint a temporary replacement for DeMint.

And among the most pressing questions inherent in that decision is how the appointee will affect the political prospects of his South Carolina Senate colleague, Lindsey Graham. The two-term lawmaker has endured criticism from the conservative wing of the Republican Party over his recent comments expressing a willingness to break Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge as well as previous breaches with rank-and-file GOP orthodoxy on issues like immigration reform and climate change.

South Carolina has no shortage of ambitious conservatives rumored to be eyeing a primary challenge to Graham in 2014, though none has thrown his hat into the ring yet.

Despite his potential vulnerabilities, Graham has powerful allies, a substantial war chest, and has proven an effective campaigner in the past. And anyone who had been considering the difficult challenge of a primary run against an incumbent senator may now be more inclined to vie for the open Senate seat special election that also will be held in 2014.

“At first blush, you’d have to say the happiest person in South Carolina today is Lindsey Graham,” said South Carolina GOP operative Joel Sawyer.

At second blush, however, the situation appears to be more complicated, and much rests on Haley’s decision.

The South Carolina governor might appoint a so-called “caretaker” -- likely an elder statesman who would be willing to serve for two years and then step aside without running for the rest of DeMint's term in 2014.

Under this scenario, former South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster likely would be at the top of the list of potential appointees. After finishing in third place in the 2010 Republican primary for governor, McMaster endorsed Haley in her successful run-off that year against Gresham Barrett and is known to have maintained a good relationship with her.

Alternatively, Haley could choose to appoint someone like South Carolina Rep. Tim Scott -- a relatively young conservative favorite and DeMint protégé who is widely believed to have ambitions beyond his current House seat.

Scott has been the most frequently mentioned name in the discussion of possible primary challengers to Graham and could be a viable contender in a one-on-one situation.

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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