In what could be a sign of the tea party’s waning influence in Congress, one of its champions suddenly resigned his Senate seat Thursday.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) unexpectedly announced he will leave the Senate at the beginning of January to become the next president of The Heritage Foundation, one of the largest and most-well-funded conservative think tanks in Washington.
DeMint, who often backed conservative alternatives to establishment candidates in GOP primaries, was re-elected to a second term in the tea party-backed wave of 2010. He was the first member of Congress to back Marco Rubio’s challenge to Gov. Charlie Crist in what became a nasty GOP primary for the party’s nomination for Senate. Rubio ended up winning the election, and Crist ultimately left the Republican Party.
The 61-year-old DeMint seemed to acknowledge the ebb of the tea party since it fueled the takeover of the House just two years ago in his statement announcing his imminent departure. Conservative activists failed in last month’s elections either to defeat President Obama, or capture control of the Senate.
“I’m leaving the Senate now, but I’m not 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,” he says.
Founded in 1973, the Heritage Foundation is an influential player on the right. It is funded by several wealthy conservative benefactors, including Charles and David Koch.
It will fall to another Republican who owes her victory to the tea party, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, to select a replacement for DeMint. A published report says DeMint is pushing Haley to appoint GOP Rep. Tim Scott to succeed him in the Senate, but DeMint’s office denies this. Scott was first elected in 2010.