Jim DeMint to resign Senate seat to run Heritage Foundation

Rachel Rose Hartman & Chris Moody

South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint fired warning shots at House Speaker John Boehner on Thursday after announcing plans to resign from the Senate to head up the conservative Heritage Foundation.

During an interview on Rush Limbaugh's radio show after DeMint's announcement on Thursday morning, Limbaugh jokingly asked the senator if Boehner was "forcing out" DeMint, referencing recent reports of Boehner purging conservatives from Congress.

But DeMint shot back that instead of Boehner forcing conservatives from Congress, "it might work a little bit the other way."

The suggestion that Boehner should be wary of DeMint's influence is typical behavior for the senator, who has long made it his mission to run his less-conservative Republican colleagues out of office.

DeMint conceded in the radio interview that "frustration" with Congress played into his decision to head up the conservative think tank instead of remaining in office, but he said conservatives are as much to blame as Democrats for the difficulties in Washington.

"The problem is not Harry Reid," DeMint told Limbaugh, referring to the Senate majority leader. "The problem is, as conservatives, we have not taken enough control of our message and our ideas and communicated them directly to the American people."

Over the past two election cycles, DeMint, first elected to the Senate in 2004, worked hard to help get hard-line conservatives elected to Congress. Through his Senate Conservatives Fund, DeMint financially and logistically supported conservatives running for office and made enemies of some of his more moderate GOP colleagues by backing their primary challengers.

DeMint suggested on Thursday that he was satisfied by what he was able to accomplish.

"I am also reassured that we have now stocked the Senate with some of the strongest conservatives in the country today, and that's a big change," DeMint told Limbaugh. "So I'm leaving the Senate better than I found it, and I think I can do a lot to support these conservatives inside the Senate and the House working with the Heritage Foundation."

DeMint in his official statement and during his radio interview repeatedly cited a desire to advance the conservative cause and create a message of optimism for the movement as reasons for his resignation. But the former marketing research firm owner also stands to receive a very large pay increase as Heritage's new president. The senator's current salary is $174,000; the salary for outgoing Heritage president Edwin J. Feulner is estimated to be over $1 million.

DeMint's personal financial disclosure statements show he's nearly the least affluent lawmaker in the U.S. Senate—he was ranked 98th out of 100 members by the Center for Responsive Politics for 2010 (the most recent year available)—with an estimated net worth between $16,002 and $65,000.

DeMint plans to resign in January, according to his official statement. Feulner has led the Heritage Foundation for 35 years.

Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, chairman of the tea-party-rich Republican Study Committee, which is populated by members aided by DeMint's campaign efforts, said in a statement:

It is disappointing to lose his strong voice in the Senate, but I look forward to his continued conservative leadership at the helm of The Heritage Foundation. ... South Carolina's loss is the country's gain.

One of the first elections DeMint may work to influence while at Heritage could be the one to choose his successor. Under state law, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley will be tasked with choosing a replacement senator to temporarily serve until a special election is held to choose a permanent successor.

Rep. Tim Scott's name was immediately circulated in the wake of the news. Scott is a conservative African-American popular with tea party activists.

"South Carolina has a deep bench of conservative leaders, and I know Gov. Haley will select a great replacement," DeMint publicly said of the succession process in his statement.

The special election is likely to attract candidates away from the race for the state's other Senate seat. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham is up for re-election in 2014 and has been the target of hard-line conservatives.