The sudden departure of Jim DeMint from the U.S. Senate to run the Heritage Foundation shouldn’t sadden his conservative allies in that body too much. DeMint, a former marketing executive, is likely to be just as effective promoting and shaping the conservative philosophy at Heritage, a respected institution with a $60 million budget, as he was in the Senate.
But now the question is who will replace DeMint in the Senate? Whoever is appointed by Governor Nikki Haley will serve until November 2014, when a special election to fill the last two years of DeMint’s term must be held. Conservatives ranging from RedState’s Erick Erickson to Fox News’s Jim Pinkerton are touting Representative Tim Scott, who represents Charleston and just won easy reelection to a second term. Scott would become the only black senator and the first black Republican in that body since the 1970s.
But in recent years several governors — in Illinois, Massachusetts, and Delaware — have chosen to appoint placeholders to vacant Senate seats so as not to give any politician a leg up. In South Carolina, a Senate seat is often for life — see Strom Thurmond’s 46-year tenure, or Ernest Hollings’s 36-year run — and a governor can keep friends more easily by picking someone who pledges not to run for the seat. The most likely placeholder could be David Watkins, a respected former state house speaker and ambassador to Canada under George W. Bush.
There is also the chance that Governor Haley could appoint herself to the seat. Her approval rating in the new Winthrop Poll is down to 40 percent, with tea-party activists increasingly unhappy with her inability to shake up state government. A new scandal involving someone who hacked into the state’s Department of Revenue website and stole personal information on thousands of tax filers hasn’t helped. Moving on to the Senate would allow Haley to escape parochial state issues and move on to the national stage. While governors who appoint themselves to the Senate have a bad record of success if they seek election in their own right, there have been exceptions, and a Senator Haley would have two years to mend fences and improve her image.