Conservatives are stunned at news that Jim DeMint, one of the truly conservative stalwarts in the Senate, has decided to resign in order to join the Heritage Foundation.  DeMint will leave the Senate in January.

DeMint, 61, was elected in 2010 for a term that will last through 2016.  His successor will be appointed by South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley.  Haley’s choice will serve in the Senate until a special election in 2014.

DeMint’s departure is not only a blow to conservatives and Republicans.  Even though he had said that this would be his last term in the Senate, DeMint had obviously signed on to serve through January 2017, and now he’ll be leaving four years early.  What about that commitment to the people of South Carolina?

“Obviously we have a big rock star bench in South Carolina, and Jim’s always been about bringing new leaders in,” says a member of DeMint’s circle.

Asked who specifically might succeed DeMint, the member of the circle said, “Look at the delegation.  You can’t make a bad decision for the people of South Carolina.”

There are five Republicans in South Carolina’s congressional delegation: Tim Scott, Joe Wilson, Jeff Duncan, Trey Gowdy, and Mick Mulvaney.  “South Carolina has a deep bench of conservative leaders and I know Gov. Haley will select a great replacement,” DeMint said in a statement released Thursday morning.  But the word from South Carolina is that DeMint personally asked that Haley appoint Scott to succeed him.

There is no guarantee Haley, who is worried about her own re-election prospects in 2014, will do that.  She might choose instead to appoint someone in part for the purpose of ensuring that that person does not run against her.  So there will be a lot of maneuvering in the next few weeks.  DeMint obviously believes there is a worthy successor to replace him. Perhaps so, but there’s no doubt conservatives will have to work through a lot of disappointment first.