GOP Sen. Jim DeMint’s surprise announcement that he will resign in January set off an intense game of speculation Thursday about who will be appointed to succeed him in the South Carolina seat and the musical chairs that could follow.
Gov. Nikki R. Haley has the sole power to appoint DeMint’s successor, who will serve through the 113th Congress. A special election will be held to fill the remainder of DeMint’s term on Nov. 4, 2014 — the same day Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is on the ballot.
The name that quickly floated to the top of the prospective appointee list is Rep. Tim Scott, a conservative black Republican first elected to the House in 2010 who is beloved by the grass roots and the tea party. If appointed, he would become the first African-American senator from the Palmetto State, where about a third of the population is black. And he would be the only black senator in the chamber in the next Congress.
“I think Nikki Haley has several good options,” Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said. “If it’s Tim Scott, that would be great.”
While party insiders in South Carolina said Scott is the appointee privately favored by DeMint, the senator denied that. Walking out of a television interview Thursday afternoon, DeMint told CQ Roll Call that he told the governor it was her decision.
“I really love the guys in our delegation, but there are other folks, I’m sure, in the state [who] will do a great job,” he said. “One thing I’m confident of is Nikki Haley will appoint a strong movement conservative.”
The first question for Haley, a rising national GOP star who is also on the ballot in 2014, is whether to appoint a caretaker for the seat who would not run to finish out DeMint’s term. If she appoints a placeholder it would create an open-seat race in two years, likely attracting multiple ambitious conservatives. Or, it could set up her own run for Senate.
But if Scott were appointed, he would be unlikely to face a primary challenge, possibly directing conservative challengers toward Graham. It would also lead to less downballot upheaval.
“If she appoints [Scott], the musical chairs is a lot less intense in 2014,” one South Carolina GOP operative said.
Haley’s spokesman, Rob Godfrey, declined to speculate who the governor might choose.
But politics moves at light speed in the age of Twitter, and insiders were already gaming out various scenarios from Haley’s pick on down.
South Carolina GOP strategist Wesley Donehue said Scott is the obvious choice for Haley and noted that the two served together in the state legislature. Donehue added that GOP state Sen. Tom Davis is the other obvious choice.
“He’s the most ideologically similar to Jim DeMint in the entire state,” Donehue said.
Davis, along with state Sen. Lee Bright, are seen as two potential challengers to Graham, who has vulnerability on his right flank but is in relatively comfortable shape two years out.
In an interview, however, Davis said he made it clear to Haley’s office Thursday morning that he had no interest in being appointed to the seat. He didn’t rule out a subsequent bid for Senate down the line, saying he was focused on the 2013 state legislative session.
Echoing conservatives in the state, he framed Haley’s decision as exceedingly important. And he suggested freshman GOP Rep. Mick Mulvaney would be a good pick.
“Right now, we’re in a battle for the Republican Party up there. I don’t think that’s being too dramatic,” he said. “What Gov. Haley has to do is send someone up to Washington, D.C., that has the principles, intellect and the intestinal fortitude of Jim DeMint.”
The other GOP members of the state’s House delegation have also been mentioned as contenders for a Senate appointment, although they appear less likely: Reps. Trey Gowdy, Jeff Duncan and Joe Wilson. One GOP insider also said Wilson’s son, state attorney general Alan Wilson, could be a contender.
Former state Attorney General Henry McMaster is widely mentioned as a placeholder appointee. He ran against Haley in the 2010 gubernatorial primary but gave his strong support to her in the GOP runoff. McMaster didn’t return a call seeking comment.
State Rep. Nathan Ballentine has also been floated as a potential placeholder candidate.
The Associated Press reported that Haley would not give herself the nod. “No, I will not be appointing myself. That’s not even an option,” she said.
Even though Democrats don’t have a realistic shot at making either South Carolina Senate race competitive in 2014, Democrats were relieved the conservative firebrand DeMint was leaving.
“Democrats in the business community are breathing a sigh of relief and saying, ‘good riddance,’” said Jaime Harrison, the vice chairman of the state Democratic Party.
If Scott were appointed senator, a special election would be held to fill his comfortably Republican district that stretches from Hilton Head Island north along the coast.
Chad Walldorf, the Haley-appointed chairman of the South Carolina Board of Economic Advisers, is seen as a top possible contender. He would likely get the support of Haley’s organization if he ran, insiders said. Other potential candidates in the 1st District include state Sen. Larry Grooms and state Rep. Jim Merrill.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.