Succession

12.08.12

Why Tim Scott Should Replace Jim DeMint

He’s an evangelical Christian Tea Partier with impeccable social-conservative bona fides—and he just happens to be black. John Avlon on the perfect successor for Jim DeMint.

Apart from Stephen Colbert, the best pick South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley could make for Jim DeMint’s Senate seat is Congressman Tim Scott.

Happily, Scott is also reportedly DeMint’s first choice, though the current senator has nothing more than advisory powers in picking his successor.

Scott’s appointment would be historic for South Carolina and the Republican Party. More important, it would be constructive for the country.

Tim Scott first made history in the Tea Party year of 2010, when he defeated Strom Thurmond’s son Paul Thurmond to win the Republican primary for the first congressional district.

To put this in perspective, the first district of South Carolina is home to Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. Paul Thurmond’s father was the Dixiecrat candidate for president in 1948, splitting with the Democrats over his staunch support of segregation, despite having fathered a black child—Essie Mae—whose paternity he denied all his life. Thurmond went on to be an architect of the Republican Party’s Southern strategy and the longest-serving senator in American history.

The fact that Tim Scott is African-American—and also conservative—should not be underestimated in the sweep of South Carolina history. The coastal first district is one of the most beautiful places in America, and the city of Charleston is one of the most elegant and evocative in the country. My parents moved there more than two decades ago and believe it’s the best decision they’ve ever made.

Certainly, Scott has played his political cards well. The local insurance-company owner and state legislator was one of Strom Thurmond’s co-chairs in his final senate campaign. When he won a Charleston City Council seat in 1995, he became the first African-American Republican elected to any office in South Carolina since Reconstruction. And these were not purely marriages of political convenience.

For better or worse, Scott is a true believer. He is an evangelical Christian whose faith drives his politics, like many conservatives. He is a staunch social conservative, who advocated posting the Ten Commandments outside the Charleston City Council before it was declared unconstitutional. He is anti-abortion and opposed to marriage equality. He supports a federal version of the Arizona immigration law and right-to-work legislation. He also admirably opposes identity politics, refusing to join the congressional black caucus.

Scott is also a strong fiscal conservative who raised money from the Club for Growth and other like-minded organizations for pledging to oppose any new taxes. This commitment ranges from the reasonable, like opposing earmarks, to the unhinged—like suggesting that President Obama could be impeached for raising the debt ceiling.

The fact that Tim Scott is African-American—and also conservative—should not be underestimated in the sweep of South Carolina history.

But Scott has a pragmatic streak that allows him to look after his constituents, such as supporting a $300 million federal project to deepen Charleston Harbor to allow big ships to enter, arguing this is not an earmark or wasteful spending but a merit-based job-creating project. This is expedient and not a little hypocritical. But let’s be honest—it makes sense because it benefits his constituency. He was also just appointed to the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

In any other case, conservatives might criticize Scott’s potential appointment as affirmative action. But as a current member of Congress, Scott clearly deserves to be in consideration for Jim DeMint’s senate seat.

The primary reason is frankly the fact that Scott would be the first African-American Republican in the U.S. Senate since the election of Ed Brooke in the 1960s—who himself was the first African-American senator elected since Reconstruction.

But we ultimately all have a national interest in depolarizing our politics along racial lines, especially in an era where Republican candidates rarely get more than 10 percent of the African-American vote. Yes, this is a rational result of what was once the Party of Lincoln embracing the states of the Confederacy beginning with Barry Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Scott’s appointment won’t erase that shameful legacy from that cynical switch—despite many conservatives’ self-serving hopes—but it will help heal the racial divides beneath partisan politics by challenging stereotypes.

In terms of policy, as a centrist independent, I might prefer former attorney general Henry McMaster or former governor Mark Sanford in the Senate, at least in terms of the way they would vote. Scott has not tried to distinguish himself as a policy leader in Congress and he has been relatively shy of the media spotlight, especially compared to his fellow African-American Tea Party Republican Allen West.

But he would be an immediately valuable addition to the Senate and national political debate—whether you agree with his political views or not. He would help upend old stereotypes about the South and the Republican Party in ways that cannot be separated from the sweep of history and America’s attempt to always form a more perfect union. And that is ultimately why I think Tim Scott would be the best pick for Jim DeMint’s Senate seat.