WASHINGTON — Senator Jim DeMint, a conservative Republican from South Carolina who helped ignite the Tea Party movement, will leave the Senate to become president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research group.
DeMint — who has fashioned himself into a bit of a kingmaker for conservative Republicans, often at the expense of other Republican colleagues — finds himself with a comfortable and well-paying perch that will provide a platform to continue his efforts to push the GOP to the right.
His imminent departure will allow him to advocate even more loudly against a big budget deal that includes the higher tax revenues sought by President Obama. He has been among the biggest critics of a deal proffered by House Speaker John A. Boehner to address the impending fiscal crisis by generating at least $800 billion in new tax revenue.
''I'm leaving the Senate now, but I'm not leaving the fight,'' DeMint said in an announcement on his plans Thursday. ''I've decided to join the Heritage Foundation at a time when the conservative movement needs strong leadership in the battle of ideas. No organization is better equipped to lead this fight, and I believe my experience in public office, as well as in the private sector as a business owner, will help Heritage become even more effective in the years to come.''
DeMint will depart the Senate next month. He will be replacing Edwin J. Feulner, 71, who will continue in a part-time role at the Heritage Foundation, as chairman of its Asian Studies Center.
A hero to many Republicans for his fund-raising abilities, DeMint frustrated Senate colleagues by backing candidates like Sharron Angle of Nevada in 2010, and Richard Mourdock of Indiana this year, contenders who proved too conservative to be elected statewide. The losses by Angle and Mourdock, as well as other candidates endorsed by DeMint in the past two elections, hurt the Republican Party's efforts to retake the Senate, although he successfully backed conservative candidates in Florida, Texas, and Utah.
''The truth is that Jim DeMint's philosophy on everything from Medicare to women's reproductive rights, as embodied by his handpicked candidates for Congress, has been rejected by voters,'' said Senator Patty Murray of Washington, who headed the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee this year.
The costly Senate defeats, as well as DeMint's proclivity for gumming up legislation on the floor, stunted his chances for leadership in the Senate, and his influence may well be enhanced from the outside.
South Carolina's Republican governor, Nikki Haley, will be compelled to appoint an interim replacement for DeMint. The seat will be filled in a special election in 2014, when Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, the state's senior senator, will also be up for reelection. Aides said Haley was surprised by DeMint's announcement.
South Carolina is a small state, politically speaking, and almost every Republican member of its US House delegation, many of them close to DeMint politically and personally, are possible fill-in candidates.
Representative Tim Scott is a popular freshman from Charleston who is well known around the state from his year in the South Carolina General Assembly. The first black Republican to serve his state since Reconstruction, Scott could give the GOP a high-profile black member in the Senate, which currently has no black member from either party. Scott is believed to have other ambitions, including a possible run at the governor's mansion.
Haley could also look to Representative Mick Mulvaney, another a House freshman, whose politics align closely with DeMint but who is viewed by the Republican leadership as less of an obstructionist. Mulvaney is among the more active members of his delegation and House freshmen. But, unlike Scott, Mulvaney has no preexisting relationship with Haley in a job, and a state, where relationships matter, making Scott perhaps a more likely choice.
DeMint ''has served South Carolina and the national conservative movement exceptionally well,'' Haley said in a statement after the senator's announcement. ''His voice for freedom and limited government has been a true inspiration. On a personal level, I value Jim's leadership and friendship. Our state's loss is the Heritage Foundation's gain.''