WASHINGTON -- Sen. Jim DeMint, a hero of the tea party and a would-be Republican kingmaker, announced suddenly Thursday he would resign his South Carolina seat to head Washington's conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.
Just two years into his second six-year term, DeMint said he would step down on Jan. 1 to helm Heritage while continuing the conservative fight. The announcement shocked even his closest Republican colleagues.
"When he told me this morning, I about fell off my couch," said South Carolina's other senator, Republican Lindsey Graham. "I didn't see this coming."
Prizing ideology over electability, DeMint, 61, sometimes infuriated fellow Republicans, picking sides in GOP primaries with mixed results. He had no patience for centrist Republicans, pushing the party to the right while bankrolling candidates with millions from his political action committee, the Senate Conservatives Fund.
In 2010, candidates he ardently supported cost the GOP winnable seats. This year, DeMint had better success.
"One of the most rewarding things I've done in the Senate is work with the grassroots to help elect a new generation of leaders who have the courage to fight for the principles of freedom that make this country so great," DeMint said in his statement announcing his departure.
DeMint also has sometimes been a thorn in the GOP side on legislation, just this week criticizing House Speaker John Boehner's "fiscal cliff'' counteroffer to President Barack Obama that would raise tax revenue $800 billion as crushing for American jobs.
DeMint's departure creates an opening for a new generation of hard-charging conservatives in the Senate -- Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah and soon-to-be Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. The strong conservative element is pitted against the establishment as the Republican Party tries to figure out its next moves after this year's defeat in the presidential race and the loss of congressional seats.