Tea party activists hailed DeMint's move to Heritage as a sign that the think tank will play a more prominent role fighting for conservative causes.
"I was shocked, and at first I said, 'Oh no,' but then I said, 'Wait a minute, let's think about this," said Joe Dugan, chairman of the Myrtle Beach Tea Party in South Carolina. "The Heritage Foundation is a tremendous organization, and as president of it he will have a broad, broad platform to educate people across the country about
conservative ideas and ideals. And that's what the country needs."
Even those who mourned DeMint's departure from the Senate were heartened by the fact that other conservatives have been elected and can fill the vacuum once he's gone. And in a Democratic-controlled Senate, DeMint may be able to leverage his popularity with the tea party base more effectively outside of Congress than in it.
"Jim DeMint is wildly popular with the base," said Adam Brandon, a senior vice president of FreedomWorks, the Washington-based anti-regulation group that has helped organize and fund tea party groups and candidates across the country. "If he would have left a couple of years ago, I would have been apoplectic. But now, you’ve got Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz. There's plenty of folks to carry the banner forward in the Senate."
Brandon also welcomed a new, more conservative partner with a strong policy shop. Although he described Heritage as a partner of the conservative movement generally, there have been times when tea-party activists and conservatives generally have disagreed with the think tank's positions, such as its support for the Troubled Asset Relief Program and for an individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act.
The hope, Brandon said, would be for DeMint to steer Heritage to a more uniformly conservative platform -- and to build the organization's reputation among the conservative grassroots.
"Jim DeMint has a lot of street cred, because everyone remembers when he was the only senator out there in the wilderness," he said.
Adam Waldeck, a grassroots organizer who ran former House speaker New Gingrich's campaign in South Carolina, said Tim Scott is a logical choice to replace DeMint in the Senate because he is popular with the conservative base and a hero among tea party activists nationally.
Scott's influence became clear during presidential primary season last winter, when most of the Republican contenders made appearances at town-hall-style meetings Scott regularly stages in his home district along the South Carolina coast.
Scott is also a good choice, Waldeck said, because he can speak authentically about how the free market -- and not government -- is the best tool to lift people out of poverty. Scott grew up in poverty, and that fact along with the fact that he is African-American would help the GOP "broaden its appeal, be more inclusive and really reach
out to every American of every background," Waldeck said.
"I saw him talk about this in South Carolina several times," Waldeck said. "He's very passionate about it and communicates his message very effectively."