WASHINGTON -- Rep. Tim Scott, a freshman tea party Republican, will become South Carolina's first black senator, Gov. Nikki Haley, announced Monday, appointing the congressman to fill the seat left vacant by Jim DeMint.
"It is a great day for South Carolina," Haley said, speaking at the statehouse in Columbia. "It is a historic day for South Carolina."
Haley was joined by Scott and DeMint, as well as the state's senior senator, Lindsey Graham, and members of its congressional delegation.
Scott, accepting the appointment, heaped praise on his predecessor.
"Sen. Jim DeMint has led in a way that few others have led," Scott said. "There's no way to fill his shoes."
DeMint, the conservative firebrand and godfather of the tea party, stunned the political world earlier this month when he announced he would be retiring from his seat midterm to become president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.
DeMint will officially depart from the Senate on Jan. 1.
In the wake of DeMint's resignation, Scott quickly emerged as a favorite among conservatives to fill the seat. At the news conference, DeMint signaled his approval of the governor's pick.
"Governor, thank you for your faithfulness to our cause and your good judgment," DeMint said. "Tim, I could not be happier today."
Conservative advocacy groups, including the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, expressed similar satisfaction with Scott's promotion.
Jenny Beth Martin, president of the Tea Party Patriots, called it a victory for conservative principles. "Tim Scott has taken our core values seriously in the House, and we have every reason to expect similar principled behavior in the Senate," she said.
Scott will be the only African American in the Senate, which has been without a black member since Roland Burris, the Illinois Democrat who filled President Obama's seat, left the body in 2010. Scott will also the first black GOP senator since Edward W. Brooke III of Massachusetts left the chamber in 1979. There has not been an African American Republican senator from the South since Reconstruction.
Haley herself has a history-making background as the state’s first Indian American and female governor. She said it was "very important” to note that "Congressman Scott earned this seat. He earned this seat for the person he is. He earned this seat for results he has shown."
The Senate seat will be up for a special election in 2014, in which the winner will serve the final two years of DeMint’s term. Another election, in 2016, will determine who will hold the seat for a full six years. Scott’s empty House seat will be filled by a special election in spring 2013.
South Carolina Democrats congratulated Scott on his new job and called on him to fight for education, healthcare and the economic concerns of the middle class. The state Democrats also called on Scott to “follow the President’s lead” in the wake of the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., “in realizing the necessity in developing ways to make sure the mentally ill are able to receive the correct healthcare and firearms don't end up in the hands of dangerous individuals.”
“Senator Scott has a big decision to make,” said Jaime Harrison, vice chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party. “Will he choose to be a statesman, fighting for the best interests of all South Carolinians or will he follow the model of Jim DeMint, allowing political ideology to trump constituent needs?”
Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.
[For the Record, 11:06 a.m. PST Dec. 17: This post has been updated to include Democratic reaction to Scott's appointment.]