GOP Sen. Jim DeMint's announcement Thursday that he will resign to run the conservative Heritage Foundation leaves the tea party without its leading voice in the Senate, but the movement has several advocates in the chamber ready to fill the void.
The 2010 Republican wave elections ushered several ambitious tea party-friendly candidates to the Senate, including Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, Marco Rubio of Florida, Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.
Ted Cruz, who with strong tea party support knocked off a well-funded establishment primary opponent on his way to win Texas' open Senate seat in November, will push hard for the movement's agenda.
Mr. Rubio, frequently mentioned as a 2016 GOP presidential candidate, has the biggest national profile of the bunch. But Mr. Paul appears the most likely to assume the role of the Senate's unofficial tea party leader, as his uncompromising and sometimes brash style — like Mr. DeMint — occasionally has caused friction with his own party's leaders.
"Rubio definitely wants to mollify the tea party-friendly wing of the party, but he also needs to be able to reach out to new constituencies, such as Hispanics and folks who are not tea party friendly" if he runs for president, said Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at South Carolina's Winthrop University.
Mr. Paul, meanwhile, is "definitely happy with the role of holding the flame of ideological purity and not be willing to accept compromise," Mr. Huffmon said.
Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots, said that with at least a half-dozen tea party-friendly Republicans in the Senate, there is less need for the movement to have a single point-person in the chamber like Mr. DeMint, who was pushing tea party-style ideals years before it was a GOP force.
"If each of them goes and does the same thing that DeMint has done and recruits other people [to the Senate] who stand for fiscal responsibility, then imagine what the Senate can be in a few more years?" she said.
Mr. DeMint's South Carolina partner in the Senate, Republican Lindsey Graham, agreed the tea party torch likely won't be carried by one person, saying that "on different issues it will be a combination of people."
Mr. Graham added that Mr. DeMint's tenacious and sometimes abrasive approach always was done with sincerity and the best intentions.
"When Jim dug his heals in, you knew he was here," Mr. Graham said. "Whether you agree with him or not, I am completely convinced that he was driven by the fact he thinks the country is going in the wrong direction."
Mr. DeMint's decision to leave caught many on Capitol Hill off guard, including Mr. Graham.
"When he told me this morning I about fell off my couch," he said. "I didn't see this coming."
Mr. DeMint will step down from the Senate in January and in April will take over for Heritage President Edwin J. Feulner, who co-founded the think tank in the 1970s and has been its president since 1977.
Mr. DeMint, who became a major electoral force beginning with the 2010 elections — helping promote tea party candidates in primaries against establishment GOP favorites — said he is ready to shift to the policy arena.
"I'm leaving the Senate now, but I'm not leaving the fight," he said. "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."
Mr. DeMint told CNN that he thinks there is "no question" he will have a greater impact on the conservative movement running the Heritage Foundation — a powerhouse conservative think tank that dominates Republican policy circles — than by staying in the Senate.
He also told the cable network that if Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney had won the election last month, he "would have thought differently about" stepping down.
Heritage isn't shy about targeting Republicans it considers lacking conservative bona fides, a philosophy Mr. DeMint will uphold. When conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh jokingly asked the senator whether House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, forced him out of office, Mr. DeMint laughed and said; "It might work a little bit the other way."
Mr. DeMint said he never intended for the Senate to be a career for him. He served six years in the House and won election to the Senate in 2004 and re-election in 2010.
His seat is safe for Republicans, with the GOP firmly in control of South Carolina's political landscape and Gov. Nikki R. Haley, a Republican, able to pick his immediate successor.
Mrs. Haley's appointment for Mr. DeMint's replacement will serve until the state's next general election in 2014. And with no clear-cut candidate, just who she picks is anyone's guess.
A popular choice to replace Mr. DeMint is Rep. Tim Scott, who was elected to his second term last month and will be the only black Republican in Congress when the new Congress convenes in January.
Others mentioned as possible replacements include South Carolina GOP Reps. Mick Mulvaney and Trey Gowdy, state Treasurer Curtis Loftis, state Sen. Tom Davis and former state Attorney General Henry McMaster.
Mr. DeMint's departure means that both South Carolina Senate seats will be on the ballot in 2014. The move is seen as a break for Mr. Graham's re-election efforts, as potential conservative Republican and Democratic challenges likely will run for the open seat.
"This takes a lot of pressure off Sen. Graham," Mr. Huffmon said.
Mr. Graham brushed off questions regarding how Mr. DeMint's Senate exit will affect is re-election campaign, saying "I have no idea how this affects me politically."
Mr. Paul praised Mr. DeMint for blazing a trail that made it easier for himself and other "constitutional conservatives" to find a place in Congress.
"Because of Sen. DeMint's tireless efforts there now is a significant voice for liberty in the U.S. Senate," Mr. Paul said.
Mr. Rubio credited Mr. DeMint as being "one of the main reasons why I'm in the U.S. Senate."
"When I ran for the U.S. Senate 2½ years ago, no one thought I had a chance to win," Mr. Rubio said. "Jim DeMint was the first person in Washington that believed in me and invested in me, and I'm eternally grateful."
Heritage Board Chairman Thomas A. Saunders III said Mr. DeMint's "principled conservatism," along with previous experience as a businessman, make him an ideal fit to run the group.
"Jim DeMint understands that conservative principles and values advance the interests of all Americans — regardless of age, gender, wealth or race," Mr. Saunders said. "He is firmly committed Heritage's immutable mission: to build an America where freedom, opportunity, prosperity and civil society flourish."
• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
Sean Lengell covers Congress and national politics and can be reached at email@example.com.
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