Jim DeMint leaving Senate to lead conservative organization

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SOUTH CAROLINA —

U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina) is leaving the Senate.

He announced he will step down at the beginning of January to become the next president of The Heritage Foundation.

A transition period will begin in early January so DeMint and current president Edwin Feulner can work side-by-side before DeMint takes the reins fully in April.

The Heritage Foundation is a research and educational institution whose mission is to promote conservative public policies.

"This is a good time to leave ... I never intended to be a career politician," DeMint said.

He said he's helped bring strong, young conservative leaders to Washington and that this move will support them.

"This is an opportunity to do more to get the American people behind them," he said. "If we don't do that, it is going to be hard to keep people here in Washington who are promoting the right ideas."

The move shocked many people, even those who work most closely with DeMint.

"To say I was stunned is an understatement," Sen. Lindsey Graham said.

With the country facing the fiscal cliff and a high unemployment rate, some voters were unhappy DeMint is leaving.

"Absolutely bad timing," Bruce Norton said. "Absolutely terrible timing."

Political analyst Michael Bitzer believes DeMint may see this as a way to further the conservative cause at the state-level and avoid the gridlock of Washington.

"I think he sees an opportunity at The Heritage Foundation, a kind of think tank, to influence grassroots conservatism."

According to the foundation's most recently filed tax forms, DeMint could be very well compensated for the move.

In 2010, the foundation's president, Edwin Feulner, made just over a million dollars.

Bridgett Wagner, Director of Coalition Relations at The Heritage Foundation, said they've been searching for his replacement for about a year.

She called DeMint a "shot in the arm" and an inspiration.

When asked what his move means for South Carolina, she said, "We kind of see this as a win-win; we hope they do too. I understand, probably if I was a citizen of South Carolina it would be bittersweet."

Wagner said DeMint's constituents may see him back in South Carolina sooner than they think.

They anticipate getting DeMint on the road, working not only with lawmakers but state think tanks and grassroots leaders.

"I think (he'll) provide an inspiration to our conservative allies both in the Congress and now hopefully we can have him spread out across the country a little bit more," Wagner said.

Gov. Nikki Haley released a statement, which read in part: "U.S. Senator Jim DeMint has served South Carolina and the national Conservative movement exceptionally well. Our state's loss is The Heritage Foundation's gain."

DeMint has served in the Senate for the past eight years. Before that, he was elected to the U.S. House in 1998 and left after three terms.

Eyewitness News asked who will take over DeMint's seat since his term lasts until 2016. The South Carolina Election Commission said this is new territory, and this is what it believes will happen: The governor will appoint his replacement, and that person's term will last until January 2014. Then there will be an election to find a person to take over until 2016.