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South Carolina's Jim DeMint To Leave U.S. Senate

Republican Senator Jim DeMint announced Thursday that he is resigning his seat from South Carolina to become president of the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank. What will his departure mean for the Senate and for South Carolina?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

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And I'm David Greene.

As we heard elsewhere in the program, there are signs the Tea Party has lost some of its steam. Now one of its leaders is making a move. South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint announced he's resigning his seat to become president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C. think-tank. DeMint, a staunch fiscal and social conservative, is considered a founder of the Tea Party movement. NPR's Brian Naylor reports on what his departure will mean for the Senate and for South Carolina.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Jim DeMint is the prototypical tea-partier. He's a relentless, often lonely voice against spending bills. With his Senate Conservatives Fund, he raised money and campaigned for conservative Senate candidates, often opposing the party establishment's choices, with mixed results. DeMint told talk show host Rush Limbaugh yesterday he now believes he can be more effective outside the Senate chamber.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW")

SEN. JIM DEMINT: Many of the policies that I've developed - whether it be Social Security reform or health care reform, tax reform - Heritage has guided that policy development. And I believe that I can do more good for the conservative movement outside of the Senate in leveraging the assets of The Heritage Foundation to communicate a more positive, optimistic message to the American people.

NAYLOR: Inside the Senate, DeMint's banner will be carried by some of the conservatives he helped elect: Florida's Marco Rubio, Jerry Moran of Kansas, and Rand Paul of Kentucky, who said he was excited for DeMint.

SEN. RAND PAUL: I think he's changed the complexion of the Republican caucus. I think there really is a Libertarian, conservative nucleus among some members in the Republican caucus now, and it's changed the dynamics up here.

NAYLOR: But critics of DeMint said the dynamics of the Senate might have changed even more if he hadn't backed GOP primary candidates who went on to lose what were thought to be easily winnable Senate seats, particularly two years ago in Colorado and Delaware. Texas Republican John Cornyn, who led the National Republican Senatorial Committee, some of whose chosen candidates were opposed by DeMint's candidates, downplayed their differences.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN: Jim and I have probably agreed on 95 percent of issues. I guess where we had some differences over time was on tactics, particularly as regards to elections. But we pretty much resolved those issues, and we're both conservatives. And I look forward to continuing to work with him.

NAYLOR: DeMint's South Carolina Senate colleague, Lindsey Graham, called DeMint an effective voice in the Senate, whether you agreed with him or not.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: He really did strongly and passionately advocate for his positions, and did it very effectively. Jim made the Republican Party, quite frankly, look inward and do some self evaluation. Conservatism is an asset, not a liability, as we try to govern this country in the 21st century.

NAYLOR: Graham was thought likely to have faced a primary challenge himself in two years. That threat may have diminished, however, with DeMint's resignation. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley will appoint a replacement for DeMint until a special election is held in 2014, when there will now be two Senate elections.

It's unclear who she'll choose. Speculation centers on members of South Carolina's Republican congressional delegation, especially Tim Scott, a freshmen congressman who is African-American. Adolphus Belk, Jr. teaches political science and African-American studies at Winthrop University in South Carolina.

ADOLPHUS BELK, JR.: He's someone that has a good relationship with the governor, and it would allow the state to make a very significant statement. It would allow the party to make a significant statement about its inclusiveness. It's the governor's call. She might pull a rabbit out of the hat and go with someone that none of the politicos were talking about.

NAYLOR: Haley could also appoint herself. She has just a few weeks to make her selection. DeMint says he plans to leave the Senate in early January.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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