John Avlon Independent Nation

12.06.12

The Frontrunners To Claim Jim DeMint’s Senate Seat In South Carolina

Deciding who will fill DeMint’s seat for the next two years could be the most important decision Gov. Nikki Haley makes. John Avlon runs down the contenders.

Jim DeMint’s surprise announcement that he will resign his senate seat in January sent shockwaves through Washington and South Carolina on Thursday.

The Tea Party’s most vocal proponent in the senate will take over the Heritage Foundation at a reported salary of $1 million per year, plus –as David Frum points out– a car and driver. This is a step toward fulfilling Eric Hoffer’s aphorism: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket."

But now the guessing game begins as to who South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley will appoint to fill out the remaining two years of DeMint’s term. It is a safe Republican seat and two years is plenty of time for an appointee to put their stamp on it, and set themselves up as the candidate to beat when it’s time to run.

My parents moved to South Carolina more than 25 years ago, and I love the state’s almost sportsman-like, full-contact approach to politics. This appointment could well be the most lasting contribution Governor Haley makes in office (just as David Patterson’s appointment of Kirsten Gillibrand to the seat Hillary Clinton left when she joined the administration will be his most lasting legacy).

So as a way of sorting the cards for this particular parlor-game, below is my list of potential appointees to DeMint’s senate seat, informed by local sources.

To get a sense of the feel for the decision on the ground, the founder and editor of the Charleston Mercury, Charles Waring, offered this assessment: “Sen. DeMint is a thoughtful conservative who wants to be effective. I believe Jim DeMint considered the idea of working two more years with Majority Leader Harry Reid and decided he could do more for his cause in another capacity, and the Heritage Foundation is a tremendous opportunity; I cannot blame my friend for wanting to thrive outside of the legislative cesspool that Senator Reid has created, and I congratulate Sen. DeMint for making a wise change in his career choice.”

Waring’s preference for the seat would be Representative Joe Wilson of “You Lied!” infamy – a favorite of many rock-ribbed conservatives in the state. Darla Moore, a local businesswoman who funded the University of South Carolina School of Business and became – alongside Condi Rice – the first woman to join Augusta National Gold Club, could also be a good choice but is highly unlikely given that Haley clashed with her and removed her from the USC Board, to great local controversy. Bob Ingliss, who lost a Tea Party primary for his congressional seat could also be a good U.S. Senator but would be far too controversial a pick. The best man for the job might actually be former Governor Mark Sanford, but because of his Appalachian Trail-related scandal at the end of his second term, that is a likely non-starter.

“Scott is strongly conservative on fiscal and social issues and his appointment could go a long way for the state and party in correcting racial stereotypes.”

So below is a gallery of the likely contenders set for Jim DeMint’s senate seat. Ultimately, these selections are decided by a constituency of one—but that won’t stop the guessing game from going on for the next few weeks. Consider this a cheat-sheet for the conversation:

Nikki Haley

The governor’s greatest self-interest would be appointing herself to the open senate seat. Sure, it would be seen as a weasel-ly move, but it’s far from unprecedented – and Haley is more of a national Republican celebrity than beloved in her home state, where her approval rating has been lower than President Obama’s in recent years. Appointing herself to the senate would avoid an ugly re-election effort and elevate her stature. Moreover, Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell could be an effective replacement (or a senate appointee himself).

Tim Scott

The Congressman from the first district has only been in office since 2010, but the Tea Party stalwart is the first Republican African-American congressman in the state, and his district includes Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were filed. No African-American Republican has served in the senate since Ed Brooke was elected in the 1960s. Scott is strongly conservative on fiscal and social issues and his appointment could go a long way for the state and party in correcting racial stereotypes. He would be the smartest political choice, in my book.

Henry McMaster

The former state Attorney General is considered the safest and most likely pick, according to insiders in the state. A candidate for governor who lost the primary to Haley, he is a center-right figure in the state, which makes him controversial to some conservatives. He was appointed U.S. Attorney by Ronald Reagan and supported John McCain early in 2008. Media savvy and experienced, McMaster as a U.S. Attorney also created– for better or worse –the federal Operation Jackpot marijuana-smuggling sting operation detailed by Jack Ryan in his excellent 2011 book Jackpot.

Barry Wynn

The former state party chairman, Barry Wynn remains an influential and well-liked figure in the state, able to bridge upstate and the low-county interests. He’s been finance chair of Jim DeMint’s two races and backed Rudy Giuliani in the 2008 presidential primary. Primarily a local businessman, Wynn could be an ideal pick if Haley wants to appoint a peaceable placeholder and throw open the race in 2014.

Karen Floyd

The former Republican State Party chairwoman, Floyd is an ally of Governor Haley and a prominent conservative woman in the state. After serving in a number of statewide positions, Floyd now takes up the conservative cause as the publisher of the digital magazine Palladian View. Not a likely pick, but possible.

Jenny Sanford

For the most outside-the-box pick, some locals point to the possibility of Jenny Sanford – the popular former first lady of the state. Jenny Sanford took an active role in her now ex-husband’s meteoric political career and remains well-liked around the state. There is a certain wit to the possible pick that could capture imaginations in South Carolina and around the nation.