Updated Friday, December 7, 2012 at 06:07 AM
WASHINGTON — With a disappointing election in his rearview mirror and a budget compromise he could never swallow on the horizon, Sen. Jim DeMint, the conservative Republican from South Carolina who helped ignite the tea-party movement, is leaving the Senate to become president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research group.
Two years into his second term, DeMint, 61, whom many in his own party partly blame for Republicans failing to win Senate control two elections in a row, said Thursday that he has opted for a platform and a payday that the U.S. Senate could never provide him.
He will depart with the start of the new Congress in January. The occasional kingmaker, conservative hero and filibuster lover — he once forced the Senate to stay in town for a Saturday vote that he then chose to skip — then will find himself with a space to continue his efforts to push the Republican Party to the right from the outside rather than the inside.
His imminent departure to head a well-financed organization with significant heft in conservative circles will allow him to oppose even more loudly a big budget deal that includes higher tax revenues sought by President Obama. DeMint has been a loud Republican critic of a deal proffered by House Speaker John Boehner to address the impending fiscal crisis by generating at least $800 billion in new tax revenue.
"I'm leaving the Senate now, but I'm not leaving the fight," DeMint said. "I've decided to join the Heritage Foundation at a time when the conservative movement needs strong leadership in the battle of ideas."
In a parting shot — or perhaps warning flare — DeMint on Thursday suggested to radio host Rush Limbaugh that Boehner might need to watch his back. When asked if Boehner was forcing him out, DeMint replied: "It might work a little bit the other way, Rush."
The job switch should have substantial financial benefits for DeMint, whose 2010 net worth, $65,000, was among the lowest in the Senate. Edwin Feulner, the current head of the foundation, in 2010 earned nearly $2 million in total compensation.
A hero to many Republicans for his campaign fundraising abilities, DeMint frustrated Senate colleagues this year by backing Republican candidates such as Richard Mourdock of Indiana and Todd Akin of Missouri, contenders who proved too conservative to be elected statewide. He did have a hand in electing Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, who takes office next month.
"The truth is that Jim DeMint's philosophy on everything from Medicare to women's reproductive rights ... has been rejected by voters," said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, who headed the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee this year.
Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, a Republican, will appoint a successor who would then run to maintain the seat in a special election in 2014, when Sen. Lindsey Graham, the senior senator from the state and a fellow Republican, will also be up for re-election.
Haley, who said she would not appoint herself, is most likely to frame her choice around her own re-election efforts. She is a ripe target for a conservative primary challenge.
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."
Longtime senators found DeMint's move part of a puzzling trend away from working inside the institution. "People have different mindset, and they have different goals. Some people come up for a term or two terms or a term and a half and leave and go on to different things. Some people come up to be long-distance runners, to make a difference, to work within the institution," said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., a 26-year veteran who has chaired two committees and is about to become the top Republican on another.
But tea-party activists hailed DeMint's move.
"I was shocked, and at first I said, 'Oh, no,' but then I said, 'Wait a minute, let's think about this,' " said Joe Dugan, chairman of the Myrtle Beach Tea Party in South Carolina. "The Heritage Foundation is a tremendous organization, and as president of it he will have a broad, broad platform to educate people across the country about conservative ideas and ideals. And that's what the country needs."
DeMint's positions 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.
He was elected to the U.S. House in 1998 and to the U.S. Senate in 2004, replacing Ernest "Fritz" Hollings.
Material from The Washington Post and The Associated Press is included in this report.
ALEX WONG / GETTY IMAGES
Sen. Jim DeMint to lead Heritage Foundation.