Tim Scott: Can a black Republican win in South Carolina?

In South Carolina, black Republican Tim Scott is taking on one-time segregationist Strom Thurmond's son in a race for the US House GOP nomination that explodes Southern stereotypes.

Grace Beahm/The Post And Courier/AP
Rep. Tim Scott, then a South Carolina state rep., sits in his office in Charleston, S.C.
Alice Keeney/AP
Paul Thurmond, son of the late US Sen. Strom Thurmond, takes a phone call as the vote tallies come in for the Republican primary race for US House of Representatives for the first district of South Carolina in Charleston, S.C., on June 8.

Just about everybody knows about Alvin Greene's unlikely rise to political fame. But a few miles away from where the Greene saga is playing out, Tim Scott is still battling in relative obscurity for his goal: To become the first black Republican in Congress since Oklahoma's J.C. Watts declined to run for reelection in 2002.

Raised by a single mother who he says taught him the value of small government, Mr. Scott represents the other side of the coin when it comes to racial stereotypes in the new South.

In the past, South Carolina politicians have sought to exploit race, most notably paying for blacks to run for office as a way to help white candidates. The theory was that white voters didn't want black politicians, so having a black candidate in the field would send white voters flocking to the polls to support "their" candidate. Some commentators have gone so far as to suggest that might have happened in Mr. Greene's candidacy.

But Scott's ascendancy suggests a different dynamic. He's a small-government candidate who is winning votes based on his ideas, regardless of his race. What's more, he's ahead of the scion of one of South Carolina's most august white politicians, the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, in a GOP runoff primary scheduled for June 22.

Moreover, a record 32 black Republicans are running national campaigns this year – a development that is shaking up stereotypes about not only the GOP, but the "tea party" movement, which has been widely criticized as racially exclusive.

Greene or Scott: Which is the real South Carolina?

So is the racial backdrop of Greene's candidacy the reality of Southern politics? Or has it become the place where Scott can potentially enter Congress representing the viewpoints of the "tea party" movement: smaller government and more personal freedom?

The answer is most likely a bit of both as one considers the complex – and often misunderstood – attitudes about race in the South, where most black Americans live.

"For a lot of people who think that these elections are racially motivated, you have Alvin Greene on the one hand which probably was [racially motivated], and then you've got [the Tim Scott campaign] which shows a bright future," says Dave Woodard, a Clemson University political scientist and author of "The New Southern Politics." "Scott ran his campaign on principles, on policy, he was a bright, articulate, good-looking guy. So if you were racially motivated, you would still be attracted to him … because he has a lot of things a candidate needs to have."

Fraught with symbolism, the Scott campaign could have been a bold statement on race: the up-and-comer taking on the system in a state represented in the US Senate for 47 years by Strom Thurmond – a staunch segregationist, who in later years framed his racial views around the argument of states rights.

Thurmond's legacy had modern political costs: In 2003, former Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi was forced to resign as Senate minority leader after praising Thurmond's presidential campaign representing the segregationist Dixiecrat Party. In his personal life, Strom Thurmond embodied the South's complicated history of race relations; he fathered a child with one of his household's black maids, Carrie Butler.

A run to the right

But so far, both Scott and his opponent, Paul Thurmond have ignored the campaign's historic racial context.

Both are running bedrock Republican campaigns geared at the center-right South Carolina voter.

A former prosecutor, Thurmond, who currently sits on the Charleston County Council, says his father taught him that “public service is a sacred trust," writes Business Week's Patrick O'Connor. Third-place finisher Carroll Campbell III, the son of a former South Carolina governor, painted himself as the "tea party" candidate, and has since his defeat endorsed Thurmond. Both Scott and Thurmond promise to work to repeal President Obama’s health care bill.

Still regularly lampooned by shows like "Family Guy" as coon hunters and Jim Crow apologists living in kudzu-draped villages, Southern voters are prickly about racial stereotypes and could see Scott as a way to explode those viewpoints.

More likely, says professor Woodard, ideals are simply trumping race as conservative voters look for someone to wield their anger against Washington. In an anti-incumbent year, having a name like Thurmond – added to the fact of being young and largely political unproven – may not help his opponent. And Woodard says that Scott's willingness to buck black orthodoxy (95 percent of African-Americans voted for Obama) has also helped him make a his case as an independent thinker.

"This race is really more important, because Tim Scott is going to win and Alvin Greene is not," says Woodard. "His message connected this year where people wanted someone to stand up and say, 'We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore.' "

Scott campaign manager Chris McClure says Scott represents "tea party" ideals. Scott won 32 percent of the primary vote; Thurmond got 16 percent.

Scott's campaign: back to basics

Scott frames his candidacy as a return to the Founders' vision of a country where mandates like federal health care reform go against the intent of the constitution.

"This race is about the size of the federal government, eliminating that size and getting us closer to the constitutional mandate of a smaller, less intrusive government," says Mr. Scott in a phone interview with the Monitor. "We have strayed so far away from those enumerated powers that we don't even know what they look like anymore."

On his campaign website, he addresses his political milestones as a black politician in the South – he's the first and only black Republican to be elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives since Reconstruction. But Scott has downplayed the race angle on the stump.

"South Carolinians want someone who represents values more than someone who represents their face, their complexion," he says. "We're succeeding because we're keeping it on the issues. We don't talk about things that we can't control."


The curious case of Alvin Greene, surprise Senate candidate

Nikki Haley: Fresh face for South Carolina or more of the same?

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