COLUMBIA, S.C. — Republican U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, a tea party favorite who has bucked party leaders to back challenges to centrist veterans he didn't view as conservative enough, said Thursday he was resigning to take the helm of a conservative think tank.
The South Carolina lawmaker said in a statement he was stepping down to become president of the Heritage Foundation. His office said his resignation is effective Jan. 1.
DeMint was first elected to the Senate in 2004 and easily re-elected six years later. He previously served in the U.S. House of Representatives for three terms.
"I'm leaving the Senate now, but I'm not leaving the fight. I've decided to join The Heritage Foundation at a time when the conservative movement needs strong leadership in the battle of ideas," DeMint, 61, said in a statement. DeMint was unavailable for comment, his office said.
DeMint's job with the foundation starts Jan. 3, but he won't officially become president until April 3, when founder Edwin Feulner retires, said foundation spokesman Jim Weidman.
DeMint's resignation comes a day after the foundation board voted to make DeMint the next president, he said.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley will appoint DeMint's Senate successor. She didn't immediately say whom she might pick, or whether she would appoint herself. Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said the attention should be on DeMint. State law puts no timeline on her decision.
"Our state's loss is the Heritage Foundation's gain," Haley said in a statement.
DeMint's former state director, Luke Byars, said the senator's new role would allow him to effect change outside the U.S. Capitol. In the fall election, Democrats strengthened their hand in the Senate.
DeMint, who previously ran a marketing firm, thought conservatives didn't do a good job communicating their message in the presidential race, Byars said.
"He knows how to communicate," said Byars, a political consultant. "This is a vehicle for him to push and pull on conservative issues on a national stage, to get the attention of folks inside Washington. This lets him go back into something he loves. He's always been an idea guy."
The chairman of the state Republican Party said he's stunned, and said DeMint's resignation will have a ripple effect on the state GOP leadership.
Whomever Haley appoints would face a special election in 2014 to finish DeMint's term, which expires in 2016. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham faces re-election in 2014.
South Carolina GOP Chairman Chad Connelly said DeMint redefined how the U.S. Senate worked, taking principled stands against party leaders.
"He's been a conservative rock star," Connelly said. "I'm sure the conservatives in South Carolina will be heartbroken. DeMint's been an icon for a lot of us in the conservative movement."
DeMint mounted his first Senate bid as a conservative with a soft side — he had a memorable commercial where his young adult daughters kept interrupting him to tout his conservative beliefs.
But when he got to the U.S. Senate, DeMint stayed right. He said plenty of times he would rather stand with a committed minority than a big-tent majority.
DeMint put his money where his mouth is, using a political action committee to back conservative Senate candidates like Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and, after her primary, Sharron Angle in Nevada, who were ridiculed for their out-of-mainstream beliefs and soundly beaten.
But DeMint also posted wins. He was one of the first Republicans to back Marco Rubio's successful campaign for the Senate seat in Florida.
DeMint is associated with, but no longer runs, the Senate Conservatives Fund, which ranked sitting senators. He formally cut ties with the political action committee he founded earlier this year.
He helped raise more than $25 million for the fund for the 2010 and 2012 elections.
DeMint has had other successes. He opposed longtime Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, just before the veteran Republican, facing a challenge from the right, switched to become a Democrat. DeMint also broke with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the Republican leader's backyard to support tea party favorite Rand Paul in the Kentucky Senate primary. Both Paul and Pat Toomey, the conservative who won the GOP nomination in Pennsylvania, were elected in 2010.
In other cases, DeMint's silence has been telling. He pointedly refused to aid once-popular Republican Bob Bennett, a three-term senator who was defeated by conservative voters in Utah's GOP convention.
DeMint's positions have earned him rankings as one of the most conservative senators. He supported partially privatizing Social Security and installing a flat sales tax to replace income taxes. He once suggested that gays and unwed pregnant women should not teach in public schools.
On Thursday, McConnell thanked DeMint for his uncompromising service in the chamber.
"Jim helped provide a powerful voice for conservative ideas in a town where those principles are too often hidden beneath business as usual," he said in a statement.
The Heritage Foundation's spokesman said Feulner told its board three years ago that he wanted to retire on his 35th anniversary, setting into motion the search to replace him. A formal search committee was set up last year, which began talking to DeMint several months ago, Weidman said.
DeMint easily won re-election in 2010 without almost no in-state campaigning. He defeated Democrat Alvin Greene, an unemployed political unknown, with 61 percent of the vote, as he focused on Senate races outside South Carolina.