COLUMBIA, S.C. — Let the death match begin.
In South Carolina — a virtual one-party state that produces some of the country’s meanest, weirdest political battles — the resignation of Sen. Jim DeMint (R) meant that the 2014 campaign season started Thursday, in 2012.
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.
That decision is sure to shake up a campaign season that was already looking interesting here, even before DeMint’s surprise.
Republican Sen. Lindsey O. Graham will also be seeking reelection, and is expected to face a primary challenge from the right. Tea party groups have turned on Graham for supporting President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees and other sins of political moderation. Graham has $4 million in the bank already, waiting for their best shot.
Also, 2014 would bring a reelection campaign for Haley, a onetime tea party favorite who has rapidly become a symbol of the South Carolina GOP’s tendency to devour its own. A recent poll by Winthrop University here found just a 38 percent approval rating for her.
“Nikki Haley is not highly favored right now with conservatives in South Carolina. She has not governed as she’d campaigned,” said Karen Martin, of the Spartanburg Tea Party. She cited Haley’s support for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney during the South Carolina primary and faulted her for not doing more to cut state bureaucracy.
Now begins a familiar kind of South Carolina game theory so involved and intricate that it can cause your fried okra to cool uneaten on the plate.
If Haley appoints a caretaker senator, the thinking goes, she might set up a vacuum, and a giant Republican scrum for DeMint’s seat in 2014. That could draw away challengers who might have taken on either her or Graham.
“I come away still thinking the caretaker option — if she’s just [thinking of] her own future — makes more sense,” said Mark Tompkins, a politics professor at the University of South Carolina. That could also leave Haley free to seek the Senate seat herself (despite her pledge not to), or to challenge Graham for his seat.
Alternatively , Haley could appoint Scott to the seat now, and receive the goodwill that would come if the state that started the Civil War sent to the U.S. Senate its only African American member.
And his story is rich with irony. He is the first black Republican elected from South Carolina in more than a century, and to win that seat he had to fend off a primary challenge from Paul Thurmond, son of the late Strom Thurmond, the legendary U.S. senator who once ran for president as a nominee of the segregationist States’ Rights Democratic Party, nicknamed the Dixiecrat Party, and who led the longest filibuster in Senate history — against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
Scott is also a good Haley ally and a rarity in South Carolina politics: a Republican whom most other Republicans like.
But that scenario could still leave Haley vulnerable. In the three biggest races of 2014, there would now be a rich veteran senator, a beloved new senator and her.
“She’s the slow zebra of that pack,” one operative said. The state’s ambitious Republicans could challenge Haley instead. This is how they talk here.
This week, the disruption has been so great among the GOP that even South Carolina’s downtrodden Democrats are excited.
They had little hope of beating Graham, who is liked by Democratic voters here for the same reasons he is hated by the tea party. Now, there will be an unexpected opportunity in 2014 for — somebody.
The Democrats haven’t yet found that candidate. But they like his or her chances.
“Hi ho, the witch is dead,” said Dick Harpootlian, a Columbia lawyer who chairs the state party.
DeMint’s open seat has also attracted interest from a farcical candidate — TV’s fake pundit Stephen Colbert, a South Carolina native who asked viewers to badger Haley on Twitter, asking her to appoint him.
And it has drawn moderate interest from a moderately farcical candidate: former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford (R), who became a national punch line in 2009 when he sneaked away from his state to meet a paramour in Buenos Aires. Aides claimed at first that Sanford had been hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Sanford told the Wall Street Journal on Thursday that former supporters had suggested he reenter politics and seek the seat himself. “It’s not a ‘no,’ but it’s not a ‘yes,’ ” Sanford told the Journal.
Sanford’s story is just one part of this state’s rowdy, fractious recent history. In 2010 alone, two allegations of infidelity were made against Haley by Republican men (she denied them), and a mysterious Democratic challenger to DeMint, Alvin Greene, won his nomination without any serious campaign. In addition, two longtime congressmen, John M. Spratt Jr. (D) and Bob Inglis (R), lost to conservative upstarts.
This week, a new round began with an unexpected bang.
“Everybody’s just trying to get a feel of where things are heading,” said Kenny Bingham (R), the majority leader in the state legislature. He was eating at Maurice’s Piggie Park, a yellow-sauce barbecue joint started by a famous advocate for the Confederate Flag, and also a meeting place for Columbia’s political class. “You catch a lot of talk.”
But you wouldn’t catch a lot of talk from the table over his shoulder. There, at a four-top, Haley’s chief of staff had lunch with a group that included Henry McMaster, a former U.S. attorney and a widely rumored possibility for the job of caretaker senator.
This lunch had been scheduled for a long time, the men said. No comments, all around.