In as much as any one man or woman can be to conservatives, retiring South Carolina GOP Sen. Jim DeMint was indispensible and irreplaceable.
As someone who could move easily among the outside groups trying to influence policy and navigate the complicated rules and traditions of the U.S. Senate, DeMint was able to prod the "world's greatest deliberative body" in ways that advanced conservative ideas. His presence has made a real difference, something many senators cannot say after two or even four terms in office.
That he is leaving partway through his second and last term in office is something that some people find it difficult to understand. A popular senator in a "safe seat," he could have remained a U.S. senator until the day he died. Under the right circumstances he might even have become the Republican floor leader. It is difficult therefore for some people to understand why he is leaving. Let alone leaving early.
The reason is simple. DeMint understands that the floor of the Senate is not the only place for a person to have an influence on the American political process. On the outside, as president of The Heritage Foundation, he can do as much—if not more—to change the direction of the country than he can in his current post, particularly with Barack Obama in the White House and Harry Reid as Senate leader. The question on everyone's mind now is who shall replace him.
It's not clear. South Carolina has a particularly strong GOP bench. It is up to South Carolina GOP Gov. Nikki Haley to pick a successor to DeMint. A number of capable conservatives have already been mentioned as potential replacements including Reps. Tim Scott, Mick Mulvaney, and Trey Gowdy as well as former state Attorney General Henry McMaster and former Republican U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett.
Any would do a good job but would any of them be as good as, or better than, DeMint? Governor Haley has said she does not intend to pick a "placeholder," someone who would occupy the seat until the voters have a chance to make their choice known. She wants the opportunity to give the GOP a leg up on keeping the seat by picking someone who will run strongly in the next election. This, with all due respect, may be a mistake.
It was the voters in South Carolina who originally picked DeMint and it should be up to them to pick his permanent successor. Governor Haley, and conservatives in general, might be better served were she to pick someone like former South Carolina House speaker and former U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Wilkins, a solid conservative who would likely have no designs on occupying the seat permanently, as the interim replacement so that the same people—the voters—who opted for DeMint in the first place could determine who is best suited to take his place.
Governor Haley herself must face the voters in 2014. DeMint's senior colleague, Republican Lindsey Graham, is also up for re-election and, it is rumored, may face a primary challenge from the right. Adding one more competitive race to the mix would not only make things interesting, it would be a chance for conservatives to have a genuine debate over the future of the movement and its ties to the Republican Party. Given that the GOP has little to worry about in terms of keeping the seat—this is South Carolina after all, not New York or Pennsylvania, or some other state where the final outcome might be in doubt—it might be a good thing for all concerned to let the people have the final say. They chose wisely in 2004—when they first opted to elect DeMint to the Senate. The should be trusted to choose wisely again.