U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint's abrupt resignation to lead a conservative Washington think tank gives Gov. Nikki Haley a golden ticket to appoint a close ally to one of the country's most coveted jobs.

What they're saying

“To say I was stunned was an understatement. ... On a personal level, I've lost my colleague and friend. Jim and I have known each other for almost 20 years now and I think we've done a pretty good job for South Carolina, at times playing the good cop, the bad cop, but always trying to work together.”U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “I told Ed (Feulner of the Heritage Foundation) four years ago, half-jokingly, that when people ask me to run for president, I said the only president I want to be is president of the Heritage Foundation, because they're about ideas and their ideas are backed up by solid research.”U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., on CNN“His commitment to conservative principles leaves a true legacy, and I have greatly enjoyed getting to know and work with him over the past two years.”U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C.“Sen. DeMint's resignation is not a surprise to me. He had said he would not seek re-election, and rumors have circulated in Washington for the past several months that he was headed to a conservative think tank. Joining the Heritage Foundation will allow him to more broadly apply his vision to the country's political discourse.”Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.“Today's news that Sen. DeMint is leaving the United States Senate, in the middle of the debate on how Congress should respond to the so-called 'fiscal cliff,' is akin to an army losing a general in the midst of battle. ... It is my hope that Gov. Nikki Haley swiftly appoints someone to serve in his stead who is just as committed to the liberty movement, and who is just as willing to stand for what is right as opposed to what is politically expedient.”S.C. Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort“A lot of different names being floated out there (to fill DeMint's seat). I like the name Tim Scott more than the other names I have heard, quite frankly. I think Tim would be an excellent choice to be a U.S. senator.”S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston“As Nikki Haley would say, 'It's a great day in South Carolina.' Senator No has decided that four more years of saying 'No' is no fun.”S.C. Democratic Chairman Dick Harpootlian“Senator DeMint is a conservative rock star. At the Heritage Foundation, he will be in an even greater position to spark revolutionary change.”S.C. GOP Chairman Chad Connelly “The inner circle of Jim DeMint has a particular affection for (U.S. Rep. Tim) Scott.”GOP and DeMint fundraiser Barry Wynn “U.S. Senator Jim DeMint has served South Carolina and the national conservative movement exceptionally well. His voice for freedom and limited government has been a true inspiration.”S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley“I think the tea party is certainly a loser. He (DeMint) is not out of the game, but he's serving in a different capacity. I think he could be more 'impactful' on national policy in the Senate. I think conservatives are sort of losing out, but it's hard to say. It may be a net positive.”College of Charleston political science professor Jordan Ragusa“Although we are sad to see Senator DeMint leave political office, the Heritage Foundation will be a wonderful fit for our nation's most conservative senator.”U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C.“He has been a mentor for scores of conservatives at all levels of government. He is, simply put, one of the most decent, kind, humble men I have ever been privileged to know.”U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C.

And if some Lowcountry advocates get their way, the pick will be Charleston's Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, who many consider the early and likely front-runner.

Jim DeMint

Born: Sept. 2, 1951Age: 61EDUCATION: BA, University of Tennessee; MBA, Clemson University.Background: Ran marketing company in Greenville before first campaign for Congress, winning the Upstate's 4th District seat in 1998. Served three consecutive terms.Elected: South Carolina's junior senator in 2004, following retirement of Democrat Fritz Hollings. Re-elected in 2010.Most notable stance: Opposed budget earmarks, listing them as a “congressional favor factory.”Family: He and his wife Debbie live in Greenville. They have four adult children.Future: Stepping down from Senate seat in January. Will take over as head of Washington-based conservative think tank Heritage Foundation in April.

For now, Haley's office is not disclosing a timetable or a favorite, though the governor said she has no designs on the seat for herself.

Governor Nikki Haley today released the following statement regarding U.S. Senator Jim DeMint's retirement and the process of filling the vacancy it creates:

“Appointing a new member of the U.S. Senate is a solemn duty, and I take this responsibility with utmost seriousness. I will make this decision in a manner that is thoughtful and dignified, but also quickly."

“I want to make two things clear from the outset. Number one, I will not take the appointment myself. Number two, I will appoint a person who has the same philosophy of government that Jim DeMint and I share."

“With all the challenges we face as a state and nation, it is essential that the next senator from South Carolina be dedicated to the principles that our state most values.”

DeMint, 61, was not expected to seek re-election when his second six-year term ends in 2016, but still stunned many when he announced that he will quit the Senate next month to become president of the D.C.-based Heritage Foundation.

DeMint did not respond to a request for an interview, but a spokesman for the Heritage group confirmed that DeMint first interviewed to succeed Edwin Feulner at least three months ago.

While he gave no public hint of plans to switch jobs, at least three weeks before Election Day DeMint foreshadowed to The Post and Courier that he was already thinking of a life away from Capitol Hill.

“I've just seen that there's a lot I can do outside of Washington through grassroots groups to further the cause of freedom that is important to me,” he said during an appearance in Charleston.

Supporters said that in recent times, DeMint, a hero of the tea party movement, had become more outspoken about his frustration at the pace of change in Washington.

“He thinks Washington is broken and he said so,” Charleston County GOP Chairwoman Lin Bennett said. “You can't get anything done there.”

Still, Bennett and others expressed surprise that DeMint quit before his term was up.

Under state law, the governor will fill the vacancy with an appointee who will serve for the next two years. A special election for the remainder of the term will be held in November 2014. That winner will be up for re-election in 2016.

“It's been an honor to serve the people of South Carolina in the United States Senate for the past eight years, but now it's time for me to pass the torch to someone else and take on a new role in the fight for America's future,” DeMint said in a statement put out by his office.

“I'm leaving the Senate now, but I'm not leaving the fight.”

His Heritage Foundation pay has not been set. Feulner, the group's longtime leader, was paid more than $1 million a year. A U.S. senator's salary is $174,000.

Leading Republicans said DeMint had done a good job keeping the move secret. “I was completely floored by (DeMint's announcement),” state Attorney General Alan Wilson said. “I didn't see it coming.”

“I'm thinking Jim would not have told very many people because he and I are pretty good friends,” said House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston.

DeMint, a Greenville marketing business owner, was first elected to office when he ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1998, taking the conservative Upstate's 4th Congressional District.

He left the House after limiting himself to three terms before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, after Democrat Fritz Hollings retired. He was re-elected in 2010.

Haley issued a statement praising DeMint's service. “His voice for freedom and limited government has been a true inspiration,” she said.

In Columbia, speculation was rampant Thursday on whom Haley might pick as a successor, with state and national speculation focusing early on Scott, who was re-elected to a second two-year term representing the coastal 1st District in November.

Scott would not discuss the reports linking him to DeMint's seat. “Governor Haley does have the only vote that counts,” he said. “In the end, I think she's going to make the best decision she can through whatever process she goes through.”

Asked if he were interested, Scott said, “I don't want to be coy, but I would say if she calls, I'll give her an answer. I'm going to keep all my speculation as to what is going to happen to myself.”

If Scott is chosen, a special election would be held to fill his seat.

Other names popping up in the appointment guessing game included former S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster and former House Speaker David Wilkins of Greenville.

The state's other U.S. senator, Lindsey Graham, took to the floor of the Senate to praise his longtime friend.

“To say I was stunned is an understatement,” said Graham, who is up for re-election in 2014, as is Haley. South Carolina has “lost a great, strong political voice. On a personal level, I've lost my colleague and friend. Jim and I have known each other for almost 20 years now, and I think we've done a pretty good job for South Carolina.”

DeMint won legions of conservative admirers for his battle against congressional earmarks, and he increasingly focused his political attention on raising money for other conservative Senate candidates. Some, such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, won; others did not.

During a 2004 debate with Democratic challenger Inez Tenenbaum, DeMint created a firestorm when he said openly gay people should not be allowed to work as schoolteachers in the state.

DeMint's re-election campaign in 2010 also was among the most bizarre in recent history, as he easily defeated unemployed Alvin Greene, an Army veteran. Greene, who had never held office, paid his $10,000 filing fee to the Democratic Party with his own money but never really campaigned.

In Washington, DeMint also was identified as one of six members of Congress who lived in a million-dollar Capitol Hill townhouse subsidized by a secretive religious organization, alternately known as the “Fellowship” and the “Foundation.”

Diehard supporters like Mike Murphree of the Charleston Tea Party said DeMint will be “greatly missed,” as his departure comes at a time when Republican Party leaders are talking to themselves in the wake of last month's election results.

“My hat's off to him. That's a brave move,” Murphree said of DeMint. “I don't think he can be replaced, to be honest. I think he can be succeeded.”

Brendan Kearney and Stephen Largen contributed to this report.