With Nikki Haley and Tim Scott, will South Carolina runoffs make history?

Nikki Haley, an Indian-American woman, and Tim Scott, a black man, look positioned to win their respective races Tuesday in GOP runoffs in South Carolina. Their rise is a window into a changing state.

By , Staff writer

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    South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin wave to supporters during a campaign rally at the statehouse in Columbia, S.C. on May 14. Haley and Congressional candidate Tim Scott look positioned to win their respective races Tuesday in GOP runoffs in South Carolina.

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South Carolina is expected to make history Tuesday night, with an Indian-American woman, Nikki Haley, and a black man, Tim Scott, both apparently heading toward Republican nomination in their respective races.

Ms. Haley, a state legislator, was given little chance of winning the GOP nomination for governor just a few months ago, and soared into the lead after she was endorsed by Jenny Sanford, the ex-wife of Gov. Mark Sanford (R), and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin – and also faced unsubstantiated accusations of marital infidelity, which appeared to backfire and build sympathy for her. She fell just shy of a majority against three male opponents in the primary two weeks ago and faces a head-to-head runoff Tuesday against Rep. Gresham Barrett.

Tim Scott, another state legislator, is also expected to win his runoff race for the GOP nomination in the First Congressional District against Paul Thurmond, a member of the Charleston City Council – and the youngest child of the late, legendary Sen. Strom Thurmond (R). That Senator Thurmond’s son may well be defeated by a black man presents no small irony in a state with a heavily freighted racial history. The elder Thurmond ran for president in 1948 on the segregationist “Dixiecrat” ticket.

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“Tim Scott is the bigger story,” says David Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University in Greenville, S.C., and a Republican strategist, noting that Mr. Scott’s district is heavily white.

If elected in November, Scott would be Congress’s first black Republican since Rep. J.C. Watts (R) of Oklahoma retired in 2003. Not only is Scott a Republican, he is backed by the conservative Club for Growth and some "tea party" groups.

Mr. Woodard says Scott’s race is an asset in a year noteworthy for its conservative backlash against the Obama administration and the Bush years, which many conservatives have disavowed.

“I think black conservatives are the real deal to conservative voters, because they realize they’ve had to break with their culture and background to come to the positions they have,” says Woodard. “Usually they don’t think they have to worry about them turning into an Arlen Specter. That’s the big fear this year: You elect these Republicans, and they’re not the kind of Republicans you want.”

Senator Specter of Pennsylvania was a Republican until last year, when he switched parties in a bid to boost his reelection chances. He lost in the Democratic primary.

The rise of Haley and Scott provides a window into a changing South Carolina, as retirees move in from other parts of the country and make for more diversity of views among voters. It’s also true that some South Carolina Republicans didn’t realize that Haley was a minority until a state senator made an off-color ethnic comment about her. But there’s no doubt that the Republican establishment is eager to display as much diversity as the party can muster, with a black Democrat in the White House and minorities in general voting heavily Democratic.

Tuesday’s primaries and runoffs are also expected to continue the trend of harsh treatment toward incumbents connected to Washington. Congressman Barrett appears headed for defeat against Haley, and another South Carolinian, Rep. Bob Inglis (R), is the underdog in the runoff for his congressional seat. In Michigan, Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R) appears to be losing ground in his race for the Republican nomination for governor against state Attorney General Mike Cox.

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