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DeMint's departure from U.S. Senate opens door to intrigue in South Carolina

| Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012, 7:08 p.m.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley says she'll try to propagate departing Sen. Jim DeMint's ideology with his replacement. “I will appoint a person who has the same philosophy of government that Jim DeMint and I share,” she said. AP

COLUMBIA, S.C. — In South Carolina, a reliably Republican state that nevertheless produces some of the country's most intense political battles, the resignation of GOP Sen. Jim DeMint on Thursday means the 2014 GOP campaign season started in 2012.

That's because DeMint's departure to lead The Heritage Foundation opens a once-in-a-generation opportunity: the governor's office and both Senate seats — all three of South Carolina's brass rings — will be on the ballot at once.

The first step in that long campaign will be for Gov. Nikki Haley to appoint someone to fill DeMint's seat — either a placeholder who would step aside in 2014 or a real live candidate, who would then have a leg up on rivals.

Here in the capital, at least the first stage of the scrum was polite.

Haley issued a statement on Friday, saying she would make her decision “quickly” and would not engineer a way to take the seat herself.

“Appointing a new member of the U.S. Senate is a solemn duty, and I take this responsibility with utmost seriousness,” Haley said. “I will make this decision in a manner that is thoughtful and dignified, but also quickly. ... I will appoint a person who has the same philosophy of government that Jim DeMint and I share.”

So far, DeMint's open seat has attracted interest from a farcical candidate — TV's fake pundit Stephen Colbert, a South Carolina native who asked viewers to badger Haley on Twitter to appoint him.

And it drew moderate interest from a onetime national punchline: former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who sneaked away from his state to meet a paramour in Buenos Aires while supposedly “hiking on the Appalachian Trail.”

Sanford told The Wall Street Journal on Thursday that former supporters had suggested he re-enter politics and seek the seat. “It's not a ‘no,' but it's not a ‘yes,'” Sanford told the Journal.

On Thursday, some people said DeMint had privately supported Rep. Tim Scott, a first-term legislator from the state's coast who has built a national following among conservatives. If Haley appoints Scott, he would make a startling kind of history: the Senate's only black member would be a Republican from the state where the Civil War began.

Later that day, however, another aide said DeMint had no favorites.

If DeMint's seat goes to a caretaker, then South Carolina's primary in 2014 could become a giant Republican brawl — perhaps drawing away Tea Party challengers who might have focused efforts on defeating longtime GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, who sometimes bucks conservatives.

Mark Tompkins, a politics professor at the University of South Carolina, said this outcome might be the best one for Haley's political future.

“There's a sort of musical-chairs quality to it,” Tompkins said. By contrast, he said, “if she puts Scott in the Senate, then her re-election campaign is one of the obvious targets for all these ambitious folks.”

“I come away still thinking the caretaker option — if she's just [thinking of] her own future — makes more sense,” Tompkins said.

That could also leave Haley free to seek the seat or to challenge Graham for his seat from the right.

Whatever happens in 2014, there's a good chance for ugliness.

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