Rep. Tim Scott of South Carolina to be first black Republican senator since 1978

December 20, 2012
Timothy Eugene Scott

Timothy Eugene Scott

Timothy Eugene Scott was growing up poor and black in Charleston, S.C., the son of a nurse’s aide who worked 16-hour shifts, when Strom Thurmond, who ran for president as the standard-bearer for segregationists, was at the peak of his powers in the Senate.

On Monday, December 17, 2012 the congressman was named to fill the office once held by Thurmond (R), making him the first black Republican to serve in the Senate since Edward Brooke of Massachusetts lost his bid for reelection in 1978. It also makes him the first African American senator from the South since Reconstruction and only the seventh black person ever to serve in that chamber. Gov. Nikki Haley (R) selected him to succeed Jim DeMint (R), who is retiring.

Despite his very conservative beliefs, Democrats should not discount what the African American’s appointment means.

The appointment propels Scott, 47, into the front ranks of a Republican Party trying to demonstrate that it can speak to a broader, nonwhite constituency. He joins Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Sen.- elect Ted Cruz (TX) and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal in putting a more diverse face on the GOP.

“It is a great day for South Carolina. It is a historic day for South Carolina,” said Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants and the state’s first female governor.

As the only black U.S. senator, Scott will become one of the most visible and important conservative figures in the country, one whose new prominence will require him to navigate a new set of political realities.

His rise to the Senate would be historic had it happened anywhere in the Deep South. That he has come to power in South Carolina — home to an especially brutal tradition of racially charged politics and where the Confederate flag still flies in front of the statehouse — gives the story even more resonance.

Scott is accustomed to breaking barriers. His 1995 election to the Charleston County Council made him the first African American Republican to hold any state office since 1902. That led to him serving as state co-chairman of Thurmond’s final Senate campaign, in 1996.

He moved to the state legislature in 2008 and two years later beat Thurmond’s son and Carroll Campbell III, the son of a former governor, in the Republican primary for the state’s 1st Congressional District.

As a freshman, he joined the call to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and opposed an increase in the federal debt ceiling. He is a steadfast supporter of gun rights who received a 92 percent voting rating from the National Rifle Association. Scott’s highest-profile moment until Monday was probably a two-minute speech at the Republican National Convention.

Scott will have to work hard to hang on to the Senate seat. He will face a special election in 2014 for the final two years of DeMint’s term, and if he wins, another race in 2016 for a full six-year term.