In an unexpected move, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) announced today that he will leave the Senate in January to become the president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
DeMint, perhaps the leading voice for the Senate's tea party contingent, said that while he is retiring from the upper chamber, he isn't "leaving the fight."
"I've decided to join The Heritage Foundation at a time when the conservative movement needs strong leadership in the battle of ideas," the Republican said in a statement. "No organization is better equipped to lead this fight, and I believe my experience in public office as well as in the private sector as a business owner will help Heritage become even more effective in the years to come."
At Heritage, DeMint will replaced Edwin Feulner, who created the think tank and will take an emeritus position at the organization in April.
The influential organization welcomed DeMint in a statement, saying he has shown "principled conservatism."
And Feulner said he was happy to have DeMint following his lead.
"I couldn't be more pleased with the Board's selection," Feulner said in a statement. "Jim DeMint understands that conservative principles and values advance the interests of all Americans -- regardless of age, gender, wealth or race."
While the move came as a surprise this morning, the move was in the works for 'a few years,' according to a source at the Heritage Foundation. Becoming president of one of the top conservative think tanks in the country is not a move that happens overnight, conservative lobbyists and Hill staffers said this morning.
Still, DeMint's departure will require an adjustment by his Senate colleagues.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said DeMint "helped provide a powerful voice for conservative ideas in a town where those principles are too often hidden beneath business as usual."
"There is no question in my mind that he raised the profile of important issues like spending and debt and helped galvanize the American people against a big government agenda," McConnell said in a statement.
DeMint, 61, was elected to the Senate in 2004 after serving in the House. He was easily re-elected in 2010 and had previously said he would not seek a third term.
The South Carolinian has had a significant impact on the Senate despite his relative lack of seniority. His Senate Conservatives Fund became a clearinghouse for conservative Senate candidates, raising millions of campaign dollars for endorsed candidates.
DeMint's fund was controversial even in Republican circles, though, because for nearly every success there was a notable failure. Among the successes, now-Sen. Mike Lee defeated then-Sen. Bob Bennett in the Utah Republican nominating process and went on to win the seat in 2010. Similarly, former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz defeated Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the establishment choice, in the Republican primary this year.
In other instances, though, DeMint's candidate proved unelectable in a general election. Delaware's Christine O'Donnell, notably, lost to now-Sen. Chris Coons (D) in 2010 after she defeated Rep. Mike Castle in the Republican primary, dashing Republican hopes of winning the seat.
When DeMint's resignation becomes official in early January, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) will select a replacement. A special election will be held in 2014 to fill the remaining two years of DeMint's term, coinciding with the re-election campaign of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R), DeMint's more moderate Palmetto State colleague.
A conservative leader on energy and environment
DeMint has been among his party's most conservative voices on energy issues and has fought to eliminate tax breaks for renewable energy, alternative fuels, electric vehicles and numerous other sectors. DeMint unsuccessfully tried to attach a version of his bill, S. 2064, to the transportation bill earlier this year, but his amendment failed on a 26-72 vote (E&ENews PM, March 13).
DeMint joined forces with Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), who introduced similar legislation in the House. They like to present their bills as efforts to eliminate all energy subsidies, although they leave untouched the largest tax deductions enjoyed by oil companies that Democrats have attempted to eliminate. The legislation does eliminate two credits for the oil industry that are virtually never used because they are triggered by oil prices far below recent levels.
He has also defended the most lucrative incentives enjoyed by oil companies, characterizing them as standard business deductions enjoyed by a variety of industries. He has dismissed Democratic efforts to eliminate the tax breaks as an attempt to "punish political enemies" (E&ENews PM, May 10).
At Heritage, DeMint will find plenty of like-minded opponents to clean energy subsidies. The organization is among the leading groups arguing against an extension of the wind production tax credit, which is set to expire at the end of this year unless Congress acts. Just last month, Heritage convened a panel of conservative economists to outline arguments against the credit (E&ENews PM, Nov. 27).
DeMint's retirement also creates an opening on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. The Republican was slated to become ranking member next Congress, filling the boots of retiring Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
It is unclear at this point who will step into that role, but South Dakota Sen. John Thune (R) could be next in line.
Thune has been active on the committee, leading the charge to prohibit U.S. airlines from participating in an E.U. emissions program. That program was recently put on hold, but the legislation was sent to the president's desk to be signed into law (E&E Daily, Nov. 14).