Who will replace DeMint? Scott rises to top of list

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by Peter Hamby

Washington (CNN) — On the list of people who might be appointed to fill departing Sen. Jim DeMint’s Senate seat, there’s Rep. Tim Scott and everyone else.

DeMint announced Thursday he is leaving the Senate to take over the conservative Heritage Foundation, a decision that’s shaking up carefully plotted lines of succession in South Carolina politics.

Tim-Scott
FRONT-RUNNER–Tim Scott, R-S.C., was elected in 2010 to the US House of Representatives. (Photo/Tim Scott for Congress)

Gov. Nikki Haley will now be tasked with appointing a replacement who will hold the seat until a special election can be held in 2014.

So why is Scott at the top of the list?

Haley has always kept her cards close to her chest and is not afraid to buck conventional wisdom. No one should presume to know what the governor is thinking.

But she will undoubtedly face pressure from the conservative movement that helped vault her to the governorship to appoint Scott, one of her party’s brightest stars, and make history in the process. Scott would be the Senate’s only African-American member and the GOP’s second African-American senator since Reconstruction.

Also working in Scott’s favor is the fact that DeMint holds South Carolina’s conservative congressional delegation in very high regard — and DeMint’s influence in Palmetto State GOP politics cannot be overstated or ignored.

DeMint has long viewed Scott, a former state legislator who was first elected in 2010 with the help of tea party activists and national conservative groups, as a rising star and protégé.

“A lot of Jim’s supporters and people who have worked for him over the years would feel very comfortable about Tim Scott,” said GOP fundraiser Barry Wynn, a friend and political ally of DeMint’s. “If you look at his core of support, those who have supported him back to his House days, there is a general feeling of warmth and comfort for Tim Scott. There is a special feeling there.”

DeMint has told a handful of confidantes that he would like to see Scott appointed to the seat, sources told CNN Thursday.

The senator’s official staff in Washington is pushing back hard against that suggestion, in part because DeMint can’t be seen as meddling in a process controlled by the governor.

“Senator DeMint has no favorites as our state has a deep bench of conservatives,” said Wesley Denton, DeMint’s spokesman in the Senate. “This is Governor Haley’s decision alone and he trusts her to make a great choice.”

If Haley does appoint somebody from the South Carolina delegation, it’s hard to imagine her passing over the state’s lone African-American member.

Another South Carolina congressman with statewide ambitions, Rep. Mick Mulvaney, does not have an especially warm relationship with the governor.

Scott has designs on the South Carolina governorship and is thought to be eyeing a run for that seat in 2018. But even if that’s the case, it would be hard to pass up the stature-elevating appointment to the United States Senate, which could position him for a gubernatorial bid down the road.

There’s also the possibility that Haley could appoint a “caretaker” senator who would fill the seat but promise not to run in the 2014 special election.

That could open the door for Republicans like former state Attorney General Henry McMaster or former Ambassador David Wilkins, both establishment figures who are trusted by Haley.

Other names that surfaced Thursday in discussions about the appointment include Wynn, the DeMint ally and fundraiser, and state Sen. Greg Ryberg, a likeable figure in the state house who would be something of a dark horse.

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