Thank you, South Carolina. Seriously.
Citizens of the Palmetto State woke up yesterday with an unaccustomed feeling when they opened the political page: pride. In two runoff primaries, Republican voters avoided the punchline and chose pioneering figures with out much pomp, circumstance or self-congratulation.
Nikki Haley is poised to become the first female and first non-white governor of the state. And Tim Scott is the first African American Republican nominee for Congress from South Carolina since Reconstruction. To make Scott’s victory all the sweeter, he easily defeated the son of Strom Thurmond, the longtime senator and Dixiecrat defender of segregation.
God—or at least the voters of Charleston—has a sense of humor with history.
The Party of Lincoln is reclaiming its diverse roots in, of all places, the South.
But characteristically, the citizens of South Carolina weren’t looking for liberal thanks or thinking about identity politics when they cast their ballots. They rewarded two local elected officials who did not make race or ethnicity a core part of their campaign calling card. More significant was that both candidates were backed by influential conservative figures, like Sarah Palin and the Club for Growth. Both Haley and Scott are pro-life and campaigned as strong fiscal conservatives with small business backgrounds.
• Reihan Salam: How Ethnic Can Our Politicians Be? Nikki Haley still faces a tougher-than-might-be-expected general election contest against a 38-year old state senator of Lebanese descent, Vincent Sheheen. While Republicans have a strong advantage in getting to the South Carolina governor’s mansion, Democrat Jim Hodges was governor less than a decade ago. Haley has the distinction of being backed by both Governor Mark Sanford and his ex-wife Jenny, who is arguably more popular in their home state these days. More importantly, her nomination will make her a national conservative celebrity starting, well, right now.
For the voters of the beautiful first district of South Carolina, where I used to live and my family still does, Tim Scott is essentially a lock for the congressional seat this fall—it has been held consistently by Republicans for the past three decades. For what it’s worth, Scott’s Democratic opponent is also African-American—guaranteeing the city of Charleston and the Lowcountry coastline a black congressman in 2011.
Both Haley and Scott are young and relative newcomers to politics—Haley took on a conservative incumbent state representative in 2004. Scott, a small business owner, entered the state legislature as the first black Republican back in 2008 after serving on the Charleston City Council. It has been a meteoric rise for them both, and not without some good ole boy opposition (Haley was called a ‘raghead’ by one state senator who also questioned the credibility of her Christian conversion, and dogged by allegations of infidelity.) Their success is reflective of a state and a party that is increasingly comfortable with diversity as long as ideology and acculturation are respected.
The big picture is that Republicans are on the precipice of having two sitting southern conservative governors of Indian-descent—Haley and current Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal—something almost unthinkable even a decade ago. It is great news not just for that emerging immigrant community, but also for anyone who cares about closing the pathetic partisan diversity gap in American politics.
But this also marks a success of Michael Steele’s leadership of the RNC to date. Daily Beast readers were the first to learn about the 32 black Republicans running for office this year. In addition to Haley, the GOP is also fielding competitive and respected Hispanic candidates for governor in GOP-leaning states like Nevada and New Mexico. And the GOP congressional caucus now contains two Asian-American representatives who won their seats in special elections since 2008— Louisiana’s Joseph Cao and Hawaii’s Charles Djou. After the mid-term elections are over, the GOP will be presenting a more genuinely diverse team of elected officials than it has offered since the 19th century.
The Party of Lincoln is reclaiming its diverse roots in, of all places, the South—including the state which first fired on Fort Sumter. It is a political evolution that has been a long-time coming. But it also marks the increasing diversity of the South itself, and a step toward a time when race will not be a reliable indicator of political affiliation for really the first time in American history. The old stereotypes are slowly losing their hold—and that is good news for us all.
John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.