Politics, it seems nowadays, is best embodied by that apocryphal Chinese proverb: “May you live in interesting times.” Times can scarcely get more interesting than in South Carolina, which seems to have no shortage of unusual races this election cycle. For Republicans, one of the most intriguing match-ups involves a June 22 runoff in the state’s first Congressional district between the son of a political icon and the state’s first black Republican legislator since the Reconstruction era.
Tim Scott was a relative unknown in national politics before June 8, when he trounced Paul Thurmond, son of the late Senator Strom Thurmond, by 2-to-1 in a GOP primary. As many commentators have rightfully noted, the irony is nothing if not remarkable: if he prevails in his runoff contest, Scott will have vanquished the scion of one of the staunchest segregationists to ever have existed in American politics. Along the way, he will also become the first black Republican Congress has seen in at least eight years.
For all the historic symbolism inherent in the contest, both candidates have fastidiously avoided discussions about race. Scott and Thurmond have taken a high-minded approach to campaigning, and emphasized their small-government bonafides in an attempt to gain traction with the district’s conservative electorate. Though the Thurmond name is an institution in South Carolina politics, it is Scott who earned several coveted endorsements – most notably from the Club for Growth, an influential advocacy group.
Thurmond is a prominent attorney and the son of a central figure in American politics. Yet Scott — with his quintessentially American, up-from-the-bootstraps background — has the more compelling biography. He is the product of a modest home, earned a football scholarship to college, and became a self-made businessman before entering politics. In a volatile political environment whose defining characteristic has been anti-incumbency, Thurmond’s candidacy is at least partly weighed down by his political lineage: the last person voters may want representing them is the heir of a political dynasty that has spanned decades.
Scott has repeatedly underscored his opposition to an expansive federal government, a philosophy that won him the backing of the Tea Party Movement. “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,” Scott said in a recent interview with the Christian Science Monitor. “We have strayed so far away from those enumerated powers that we don’t even know what they look like anymore.”
This being the South, however, the genteel tenor of the contest and its emphasis on political fundamentals has done little to temper the racial implications of the battle between Scott and Thurmond. South Carolina elections are notorious for their pitched battles over race. As is often the case with black Republican candidates, most of Scott’s votes have traditionally come from whites. But as the Southern Political Report notes, he has at various times in his political career garnered about 15 to 20 percent of the black vote — a noteworthy accomplishment for a GOP candidate of any ethnicity.
Several political observers believe a victory by Scott would provide a boost to the Republican Party nationally, which has for years weltered under the impression that it is insensitive to African-Americans. Moreover, Scott has the distinction of running during a year when a critical mass of black Republican candidates is building nationally. A record number of black GOP candidates have stepped up to challenge stereotypes about African-American candidates in general and Republicans in particular. Coming on the heels of the election of Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States, a victory by Scott has the potential to galvanize black Republicans across the country and redefine the contours of African-American politics.
That said, the novelty of being a black conservative has had demonstrably limited political cachet. At least a few African-American Republican candidates have fared poorly in their primary contests, dampening some of the early heady expectations. Meanwhile, Scott’s fortunes are comparatively brighter. His success to date has at least partly hinged on the idea that he’s a genuinely attractive candidate seen as the best standard-bearer for his constituents and his party.