‘‘There is no question in my mind that he raised the profile of important issues like spending and debt and helped galvanize the American people against a big government agenda,’’ McConnell said in a statement.
DeMint’s exit ensures a far more lucrative future for him than the annual Senate salary of $174,000. Edwin Feulner, the man DeMint will replace, made more than $1.2 million last year.
DeMint’s decision creates an opening in South Carolina and the prospect of two elections in November 2014.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley will pick a successor to serve two years until the next election. Among the potential candidates are several House members, including Rep. Tim Scott, who would be the first African-American Republican senator in decades.
The opening also ensures that much of the state’s attention will be focused on that race while Graham seeks another term. A primary challenge to Graham now seems unlikely although he and DeMint have clashed at times.
‘‘You could say what you like about the tea party, but without the tea party none of us would be talking about fiscal issues like we are today,’’ Graham said. ‘‘Jim’s biggest legacy is creating energy for those who believe in limited government.’’
Graham called DeMint ‘‘a strong voice. He didn’t mind disagreeing with his colleagues. At the end of day I think the movement that Jim helped start is going to be alive and well in 2014.’’
DeMint had recently stepped aside as head of the Republican Steering Committee, handing off the chairmanship to first-term Sen. Pat Toomey, a conservative he backed for the Pennsylvania seat held by Sen. Arlen Specter.
DeMint was poised to become the top Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee with the retirements of Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Olympia Snowe of Maine. The position would have given him a major say over highways, the Coast Guard and navigation issues.
Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, who has been in the Senate since 1987, said DeMint’s decision reflects the markedly different outlooks of various lawmakers.
‘‘People have different mind-sets, different goals,’’ Shelby said. ‘‘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.’’
Joked Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.: ‘‘I think it’s actually a good fit and it moves me up in the Commerce Committee.’’