COLUMBIA — U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint’s decision to resign with four years remaining in his term is creating an election season almost unprecedented in South Carolina’s modern political history.
South Carolina voters will choose both their U.S. senators along with their governor, all of their U.S. House members and statewide office holders in 2014. Not even incumbents are safe, as there have been rumblings of Republican primary challengers to Gov. Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham.
“All three rings in the circus tent are going to be full of activity,” Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said.
Haley will get to appoint someone to serve in the U.S. Senate until the election fills out the rest of DeMint’s term. A day after he announced his decision, Haley provided few clues about her choice.
She sent out a statement Friday saying it would be a person who shares the same conservative philosophy as DeMint. She ruled out a move to resign and have herself appointed to the seat, and added through a spokesman Friday she would not run for U.S. Senate in 2014.
“She loves the job she has,” spokesman Rob Godfrey said, adding that was not an official announcement that Haley would run for re-election as governor in two years.
What happens in the 2014 election overall is largely in Haley’s hands.
Appointing a caretaker who will step aside in two years likely assures a wide-open fight for DeMint’s old seat. Appointing someone with a bright political future who could spend two years auditioning for the job and scaring off challengers could increase the likelihood of competitors to the governor and Graham from their own parties, Huffmon said.
“Things have changed quickly for the governor. Suddenly she has something that a lot of people want,” Huffmon said.
DeMint’s decision also means politicians in South Carolina face quick decisions on whether to enter the 2014 races. When running in 2010, DeMint said it would be his last term, and Republicans were preparing for an open seat four years away. Now they have 18 months until the primary, said Warren Tompkins, a political adviser to DeMint and other Republicans.
“You can’t do this gradually anymore,” Tompkins said. “You just have to jump in and start campaigning.”
Tompkins points out 2014 might not be as interesting as some pundits think. While there are plenty of conservative Republicans that don’t like Graham, DeMint’s seat could appear easier to win than going against an incumbent who already has $4.3 million in the bank before the race starts.
Haley’s approval rating among Republicans registered to vote was just 62 percent and among all registered voters was just 40 percent in a poll this week by Winthrop University. But like Graham, no one has publicly committed to taking her on or appears to be raising money for a run. Haley has about $1 million in the bank for a potential 2014 run.
Of course, Haley now has a chance to make new enemies with her choice for U.S. Senate, who could come back to haunt her. Tompkins remembered talking to former Gov. Carroll Campbell about possible replacements for Strom Thurmond. One thing they realized in the hypothetical conversations was that it was a lot of power, but also had a big down side.
“One person is going away happy, and there’s going to be a bunch of others who won’t be,” Tompkins said.
South Carolina also had an election like this in 1966, when Olin Johnston’s death left an open seat the same time Thurmond, a rare Republican at the time, was running for re-election. But the party dynamics were almost the opposite. Back then, the state was controlled almost completely by Democrats. Now, all nine statewide offices are held by Republicans, along with six of the seven U.S. House seats.
Democrats might be able to take advantage of all the political attention and make some gains. But they have not fielded a legitimate challenger to Graham or DeMint since 2004 and will have the tough task in 2014 of finding three candidates who can raise money and get attention and respect without having anyone who holds a statewide office, Huffmon said.
“That’s going to severely tax a bench that gave us Alvin Greene as a Senate candidate in 2010,” Huffmon said.