The surprise news Thursday that Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) will resign from office in January to become president of the Heritage Foundation has set the stage for some dramatic political change in South Carolina politics.
No sooner was the news public than attention from the State Capitol in Columbia to the U.S. Capitol was focused on the key player in the senator’s succession: Nikki Haley, Republican governor of the Palmetto State. Under state election law, Haley gets to appoint a replacement who will serve until a special election in 2014 is held to fill the remaining two years of DeMint’s term. This means that South Carolina will be electing two senators at the same time, since the term of DeMint’s Republican colleague Lindsey Graham is up in ’14.
Almost eerily, these circumstances are akin to those of 47 years and the last time there was a U.S. Senate vacancy from South Carolina. Following the death of Sen. Olin B. Johnston in 1965, his fellow Democrat, Gov. Donald Russell, arranged for his own appointment to the vacancy. He resigned the governorship, thus turning the job over to Lieutenant Governor Robert McNair and letting him appoint Russell to the Senate. Voters were clearly upset at what they perceived as arrogance on Russell’s part and, in the primary a year later, Democratic voters dumped him in favor of former Gov. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings. Later that year, Hollings won the special election narrowly against Republican State Sen. Marshall Parker just as Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond was handily winning re-election.
Perhaps aware of what happened to Donald Russell, Haley told a radio audience yesterday that under no circumstances would she consider appointing herself to the Senate. But Haley—a surrogate for Mitt Romney in the ’12 campaign who was briefly mentioned as his vice presidential running mate—could appoint a caretaker senator who would not run in ’14 and thus pave the way for the governor to run. Among the two most-oft mentioned prospects for the caretaker appointment are Henry D. McMaster, former state attorney general and losing 2010 candidate for governor, and former state House Speaker David Wilkins, who also served as ambassador to Canada.
Should Haley choose to run for re-election to her present office, however, her appointment might take the form of a candidate who plans to run in the special election the following year. Just-re-elected Rep. Tim Scott (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 96 per cent), a Tea Party favorite and the lone black Republican in Congress, was prominently mentioned. Also mentioned are fellow Reps. Mick Mulvaney (lifetime ACU rating: 100 per cent), a determined opponent of lifting the debt ceiling unless major spending cuts and entitlement reform are enacted; Joe Wilson (lifetime ACU rating: 94 per cent), a conservative hero for shouting “You lie!” during an address to Congress by President Obama; and conservative State Sen. Tom Davis.
The lone Democratic heavyweight mentioned for the Senate race is State Sen. Vince Shaheen, who drew a strong 48 per cent of the vote against Haley in the 2010 race for governor.
“[Shaheen] is a centrist Democrat that business can live with,” veteran South Carolina GOP consultant Chip Felkel told HUMAN EVENTS, “He’s about the best the Democrats could do, but he could just as well run for governor again.”
About the surest thing an observer of South Carolina politics can make is that, with all the intrigue over who will be named to the Senate and the scenario of two Senate races at once in 2014, it’s no surprise voters had to wait nearly half-a-century for this.