And it’s already getting ugly.
DeMint’s departure created a once-in-a-generation opportunity. The governor’s office and both U.S. Senate seats — all three of South Carolina’s brass rings — will be up for grabs in the next election.
The first step in that long campaign will be for Gov. Nikki Haley (R) to appoint someone to fill DeMint’s seat. On Friday, this capital was already engrossed in an sub rosa campaign, swapping rumors, attacks, testimonials and misinformation.
As the day passed, a few facts were released publicly. If not fully believed.
Haley said that she did not want the Senate job herself, either now or in 2014.
“Appointing a new member of the U.S. Senate is a solemn duty, and I take this responsibility with utmost seriousness,” Haley said in a statement. “I will make this decision in a manner that is thoughtful and dignified, but also quickly.”
She continued: “I will appoint a person who has the same philosophy of government that Jim DeMint and I share.”
A spokesman for DeMint said that the outgoing senator had not suggested any replacement to Haley when he called her to say he was leaving. That contradicted one of Columbia’s most persistent rumors, that DeMint had recommended Rep. Tim Scott (R).
“It’s her decision,” said Wesley Denton, DeMint’s spokesman. “He trusts her.”
Third, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R) — another favorite of conservatives here — said in a phone interview that both he and Scott had notified Haley that they wanted to be considered for the job.
But Mulvaney said that, in his mind, this is no way counted as campaigning against Scott, a close friend. “It’s not really a race, is it?” Mulvaney said. He meant: not yet.
“We’ve both made Nikki aware of the fact that we’d be interested in the position,” Mulvaney said. “Tim’s been a little more public” about that intention. “But it’s not the same as running against each other.”
The rumor mill brushed aside all three as misinformation. Some of the state’s Republican operatives, for example, were certain that DeMint really was pushing Scott: One recurrent report had it that Scott would be announced as soon as Sunday (Scott did not return a request for comment Friday).
Other operatives were sure that that first bunch was actually trying to hurt Scott’s prospects, with a reverse psychology: If Haley felt she were being pressured toward Scott, that logic went, she might rebel and pick somebody else. This was the darkest kind of political consultant magic. “A triple bank shot,” one said.
“In Columbia, South Carolina, the plausible becomes fact faster than anywhere in the nation,” said Joel Sawyer, a political consultant whose office sits just off the statehouse square here.
Much of the speculation dealt with whether Haley would appoint a caretaker candidate, who would serve out DeMint’s term and retire — or a real, live candidate who would run again in 2014.