U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham may be one of the biggest beneficiaries of his South Carolina colleague’s decision to leave the Senate.

Graham, who has known Sen. Jim DeMint for almost 20 years, took to the Senate floor Thursday to praise DeMint in the wake of his surprise announcement to resign next month and head the Heritage Foundation.

“Jim made the Republican Party quite frankly look inward and do some self-evaluation,” Graham said. “Conservatism is an asset, not a liability, as we try to govern this country in the 21st century.”

While DeMint was considered the state’s quintessential conservative, Graham has drawn fire from his base over willingness to compromise on immigration, climate change and other issues.

Just recently, Graham said he was willing to set aside Grover Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge if Democrats reform entitlements.

Dave Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor who co-wrote a book with DeMint, said Graham will benefit from DeMint’s departure because South Carolina voters will elect two senators in 2014.

“I think it’s without a doubt that he benefits from this,” Woodard said of Graham. “He was in the cross hairs. I was getting calls from national press about who is going to run against him.”

It might be the only thing Woodard and S.C. Democratic Chairman Dick Harpootlian agree upon this year.

“The best news today was for Lindsey Graham,” Harpootlian said. “If you want to be U.S. senator in 2014, you run for the open seat. Why would you run against an incumbent senator who can raise millions and millions of dollars?”

Graham, who faced weak challengers in his 2008 re-election bid, already has more than $4 million in the bank.

College of Charleston political science professor Jordan Ragusa said Graham still could face problems in the 2014 GOP primary if the state’s conservative base is particularly mobilized. However, he also noted a recent poll showing that Graham still has support of almost two thirds of the state’s Republicans.

“The reality is that Graham has been carefully preparing for a conservative challenge in 2014,” he said.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.