If Tim Scott, the Republican nominee in South Carolina's first congressional district, wins election in November, he will become the first African-American Republican to be elected to Congress from the former Confederacy since Reconstruction. Scott faces only token Democratic opposition in the heavily Republican district. In fact, his opponent, Ben Frasier Jr., is a perennial losing candidate—he has unsuccessfully run for office 18 times—who Democratic House Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and other local Democrats have suggested might be a Republican plant.
Scott doesn't have much in common with the last Republican congressman from the South, George Henry White, who served two terms from North Carolina, ending in 1901—nor does he ever invoke White's legacy, as President Obama did in an address to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation last year. White, an attorney, was known for advocating civil-rights causes such as anti-lynching legislation and increased spending on African-American education. Scott, by contrast, wants to introduce all federal social programs, including the Department of Education, to "zero-based budgeting," meaning they would start every year's budget with no funding and have to prove the need for every dollar they are allocated that year.
Scott presents himself as a fairly typical aspiring Republican congressman, and on paper that is what he is: he grew up in the state, he opened a small business, and he serves in the state legislature. He is staunchly conservative on every issue: hawkish on national security, committed to keeping out illegal immigrants at all costs, and in favor of repealing health-care reform, cutting taxes, and defending "traditional marriage" by keeping the institution off limits to gays and lesbians. He even embraces the frame of states' rights for issues such as labor law and health care; some Southern Democrats and liberal historians have argued that the reemergence of states' rights as a rallying cry on the right suggests a continuity between today's conservatives and past opponents of civil rights.
But Scott prefers not to ruminate on the historic nature of his candidacy, nor to see political issues in a racially tinged light. "I'm looking to the future more than the past," he says. "States' rights to me is empowerment of every state in the Union. Health care is a state issue." Likewise, Scott sees his success as no greater change than "the evolution of an issue-centric electorate."
"Voters are more interested in your issues than in any other characteristic," he says.
Merle Black, a political scientist who studies the South at Emory University, agrees that local voters simply treated Scott like they would any well-established local politico. "Scott has a lot of experience in the district and a strong base of support in the Charleston portion," notes Black. "Scott polled extremely well among white conservatives throughout the district. Those folks like African-American candidates who are conservative."
Nonetheless, the ability of South Carolina's white Republicans to get behind a black candidate, even a conservative one, may strike some political observers as remarkable, particularly because South Carolina is arguably the most unlikely of all Southern states to host such a racial breakthrough.
The state Republican Party has had a complicated history with race in recent years. Lee Atwater—the Republican strategist accused of pandering to racial fears with a commercial for George H.W. Bush's 1988 campaign focusing on Willie Horton, an African-American convict who committed murder while on furlough under Democratic candidate Mike Dukakis's policy in Massachusetts—cut his teeth in South Carolina's GOP. In 2000 John McCain's campaign crashed and burned in the South Carolina primary; as he struggled to appease locals who were committed to keeping the Confederate flag flying above the state capitol, his opponents spread unfounded rumors that he had fathered an illegitimate black child. (Scott supported the compromise over the Confederate flag reached later that year: it was removed from above the capitol and transferred to a monument in front of the building.) Earlier this month one of Scott's own colleagues, Rep. Jake Knotts, referred to President Obama and gubernatorial nominee Nikki Haley as "ragheads."
Last year, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shocked official Washington by shouting "You lie!" at President Obama during an address to a joint session of Congress, the first such address to ever be delivered by an African-American president. Some pundits suggested that Wilson's animosity toward Obama might have something to do with the fact that Wilson had worked for former segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).
Scott, for his part, has not appeared to resent Thurmond's infamous past: in 1996 he was co-chair of Thurmond's final reelection campaign. In a development laden with symbolism, it was Thurmond's son Paul whom Scott defeated in a runoff last Tuesday. "Paul Thurmond wasn't even necessarily the candidate of the Thurmond wing of the party," jokes Ed Kilgore, managing editor of The Democratic Strategist and a South Carolina native.
If Scott has ever been marginalized for being one of the few black Republicans in politics—he is the only African-American in the state legislature's Republican delegation—he says it comes from other African-Americans, not other Republicans. "I've certainly got my challenges on [the African-American] side a little bit. It's certainly cutting across the lane, being a black Republican," Scott concedes. "[But] today, it's very different than 15 years ago. This time I had many of the largest African-American churches on my team."
So does Scott's success show a way for Republicans to improve their poor performance among African-American voters? That depends on how much improvement you're looking for. "My races have proven we [Republicans] can appeal to an African-American constituency," Scott says. "I've consistently done well among African-Americans in general elections." But he still doesn't win a majority of black voters in his state's legislative general elections.
So what counts as doing well? Scott defines it as winning 25 to 30 percent of the vote. While that's an improvement on most Republican performances—John McCain got only 4 percent of black voters nationally in 2008, while George W. Bush got 11 percent in 2004—numbers like Scott's don't have Democrats quaking with fear of losing the black vote. "Do not confuse this with any intention or ability on the part of South Carolina Republicans to compete for black voters," warns Kilgore.