South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint has announced he's leaving the Senate in January to become president of The Heritage Foundation – a conservative think tank. In a statement, DeMint says he's leaving the Senate but - quote - "not leaving the fight."
South Carolina Republicans knew Senator DeMint planned to retire after his second term in 2016, but they hoped to have him until then.
"Senator DeMint's been a rock star for us," says South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Chad Connelly. "He's become an icon for the conservative movement nationwide."
DeMint has become a kingmaker in primary battles, funding Tea Party-favored candidates and boosting the profile of conservative stars like Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.
Clemson Political Scientist and former DeMint campaign consultant Dave Woodard says DeMint is looking to reinvigorate a conservative movement that lost ground in the 2012 election. A conservative think tank like The Heritage Foundation is an ideal spot for that, says Woodard.
"He's one of 100 in the Senate - he's one of one in The Heritage Foundation," says Woodard. "I mean they can lobby all across Capitol Hill in the House and Senate with their proposals. He's definitely increased in reach and influence."
DeMint's early departure has thrown political insiders into a frenzy, predicting who South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley will pick to fill the seat. Winthrop Political Scientist Scott Huffmon says it has made South Carolina "the ticket to watch" in 2014.
"It really opens up the big tent in the circus of 2014," says Huffmon. "There's going to be special election to replace (DeMint) at the same time (SC Senator) Lindsey Graham was due for his regular re-election and this is all happening in the same year as a gubernatorial election."
Early talk of a replacement for DeMint has centered on Republican Congressman Tim Scott, who would be the only African American in the U.S. Senate and the first black Republican Senator since the 1970s.
Haley could also resign as Governor and have herself appointed to the seat.