Departing South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint didn’t make out so badly.

He didn’t fulfill his stated goal of defeating President Obama’s bid for a second term and presiding over an ascendant Republican majority in the U.S. Senate. You might even say his insistence on conservative purity over perceived moderation damaged the GOP brand when it served up candidates such as Sharron Angle in Nevada and Richard Mourdock in Indiana, who ran and lost.

But as he leaves his Senate perch, he is a conservative and tea party hero (“Sen. Tea Party”) in South Carolina and beyond. Senate protégés such as Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky remain in Washington to carry on his legacy and lead the GOP in his image. Plus, he promises to wield a microphone and influence at the Heritage Foundation. The hefty paycheck isn’t so bad, either.

Others benefit, too, especially in DeMint’s home state. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) is probably breathing easier about his 2014 re-election bid, now that anticipated challengers from the right are likely to be tempted by the DeMint seat. But since it’s South Carolina, the home of combatant characters all too willing to take a shot, Graham shouldn’t stop looking over his shoulder.

Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who bested Strom Thurmond’s son in a GOP contest before winning a House seat, is a friend of the departing Jim DeMint. (Brad Nettles-AP)

The South Carolinian in the best spot may be Rep. Tim Scott, the 47-year-old U.S. representative and friend of DeMint. Scott made news when he was elected to the House, especially since the African American’s path left Paul Thurmond in his primary dust. Yes, that’s the son of Strom Thurmond, longtime U.S. senator, onetime segregationist “Dixiecrat” presidential candidate and South Carolina icon.

Scott’s name is being mentioned at the top of a list of possible replacements for DeMint to be named by South Carolina’s Republican governor, Nikki Haley. If he’s chosen, that would mean a female governor of Indian descent would be naming the only African American U.S. senator, a conservative Republican, at a time when the GOP’s lack of appeal to a diverse electorate is being cited as a party crisis.

Of course, that bold statement would primarily be a triumph of optics, since the party’s conservative policies have not won over many loyal Democratic voters. But even if Scott isn’t named, all the speculation is good for his profile and future ambitions.

S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley, who traveled the country to campaign for Mitt Romney, is once again in the spotlight as she picks the person to fill Jim DeMint’s Senate seat. (AP Photo/ Rainier Ehrhardt)

Haley is just grateful to change the subject, even when the talk insinuates she might want the post herself. (She’s denied that.) Nationally, her electoral success has put the photogenic governor on the covers of national magazines, and she traveled the country lending onstage star power to Mitt Romney, the candidate she supported early. Closer to home, her star has dimmed, though. The state’s presidential primary was one of the few high points for Newt Gingrich’s White House dreams, a slight embarrassment for her.

Then, Haley’s time on the road with Romney stopped short of the November finish line, as she returned home to resolve the fallout from hackers stealing financial data of 6 million taxpayers, dependents and businesses from the S.C. Department of Revenue. She also skipped the Republican Governors Association annual conference. The state legislature is investigating the breach. A Winthrop University poll released this week put her job approval rating at 38 percent, lower than the 48 percent President Obama earned in the same category.  

DeMint’s move has once again given Haley the national spotlight, with intense curiosity about how she will wield political power. She has said she is running in 2014, when those two Senate seats will also be on the ballot. But a lot can happen before then. This is South Carolina, after all, the place known more for surprises than genteel political maneuvering. Remember, few talk anymore about the guy who had the governor’s job before Haley, the once touted future of the GOP, Mark Sanford.


Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3