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Conservative Firebrand Jim DeMint Bolts Senate To Lead Heritage Foundation

Longtime conservative agitator may now be bigger problem for Republican leaders on the outside.

Posted on December 6, 2012, at 10:48 a.m. ET

Sean Gardner / Reuters

U.S. Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) speaks during the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, June 17, 2011.

WASHINGTON — Sen. Jim DeMint is resigning from the Senate to take the helm of the Heritage Foundation, his office said Thursday.

DeMint’s departure from the Senate comes as something of a surprise. Although an official position in the Senate GOP’s leadership team was essentially closed to the conservative lawmaker, he has put together a band of like-minded hardliners over the last several years that has given him something of a power base within the Senate.

But DeMint, who was first elected to the Senate in 2004, has long chafed at the constraints of the Senate: His ability to actively attempt to oust moderate colleagues, for instance, has been greatly curtailed.

DeMint has also had, at best, strained relations with most of his conference, many of whom have viewed the ideologically rigid South Carolinian as a poor fit for the upper chamber’s genteel atmosphere.

DeMint’s relationship with leadership, meanwhile, has been all but nonexistent for several years. DeMint has long been critical, though generally obliquely so, of his leadership, repeatedly walking up to the line of outright defiance of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell over specific policy issues as well as the larger direction of the party.

DeMint is closely connected to Heritage, which is one of the most influential conservative think tanks in the country.

His departure means that South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley will name a replacement, who will serve until the 2014 special election.

A number of potential replacements will likely begin jockeying for DeMint’s seat, most notably Reps. Tim Scott and Mick Mulvaney, as well as Haley herself.

DeMint’s departure from the Senate could also complicate the reelection prospects of Sen. Lindsey Graham. Many conservatives distrust Graham, but so long as DeMint was in the Senate, he was essentially forced to sit out a primary fight for his seat next year.

Now, however, DeMint won’t be under the same constraints and could attempt to play kingmaker in one or both races.