A vote this month in South Carolina could position Tim Scott to become the first black Republican in Congress in eight years. Standing in his way: a son of the late Strom Thurmond, the U.S. senator from the state who was once one of America’s foremost segregationists.
Scott, 44, and Paul Thurmond, 34, meet in a June 22 runoff election to determine the Republican nominee for an open House seat after they were the top two finishers in a nine-candidate primary on June 8.
The district, which stretches along South Carolina’s coast, “is a Republican seat,” said Brian McGee, a professor with an expertise in political communication at the College of Charleston. No Democrat has held the seat since 1981.
The matchup’s racial implications have gone largely ignored by both candidates. Instead, the two are waging a traditional Republican campaign to define who is the most qualified to trim government spending and prevent Congress from raising taxes.
“South Carolinians are sensitive to the suggestion that race would play a factor in these races, given the legacy in the state,” McGee said. “Ignoring it is the preferred response.”
“It’s not an issue in the race because it’s not an issue for Tim,” said Joe McKeown, a Scott campaign volunteer. “Tomorrow is more important than yesterday in South Carolina.”
Scott Finished First
McKeown said Scott, a state lawmaker who previously served on the Charleston County Council, was an honorary co-chairman for Strom Thurmond’s last re-election campaign in 1996. Thurmond, who served almost 50 years in the Senate, left office in early 2003 at the age of 100 and died later that year.
Scott ran first in the primary with 32 percent of the vote; Paul Thurmond garnered 16 percent. Under South Carolina law, a runoff is required because neither broke the 50 percent mark.
Ben Frasier, described by the Post and Courier newspaper of Charleston as a small businessman who has been a perennial candidate for this office, won the Democratic primary.
If Scott wins the runoff and the November general election, he would become the fifth black Republican in Congress since the Reconstruction period that followed the Civil War and the first since Representative J.C. Watts of Oklahoma decided not to seek re-election in 2002.
Expanding Party Appeal
Under Michael Steele, the first black chairman of the Republican National Committee, the party has sought to expand its appeal to black voters. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that in the 2008 presidential election 95 percent of black voters supported Democrat Barack Obama.
“There is an added incentive for Republicans to be respectful of Mr. Scott,” McGee said.
Paul Thurmond’s father ran for president in 1948 as a segregationist candidate on the States Rights Democratic Party ticket. At the time, Strom Thurmond was the governor of South Carolina, having been elected in 1946 as a Democrat. He carried four Southern states -- including his own -- and received 39 electoral votes in the presidential election, which was won by Democrat Harry Truman.
The elder Thurmond was elected to the Senate in 1954 and in 1957 conducted the longest filibuster in the chamber’s history -- 24 hours and 18 minutes -- to oppose a civil rights measure that ultimately passed.
In 1964, he switched parties and became a Republican. As he grew older he moderated his views on race and sought the votes of blacks. After his death, it was revealed he had fathered a child with a black maid when he was 22.
Paul Thurmond is one of four children born to the senator and his second wife, who was 44 years younger than her husband. Thurmond, a former prosecutor who serves on the Charleston County Council, credits his father for teaching him “public service is a sacred trust.”
His runoff prospects got a boost when he was endorsed by the third-place finisher in the primary, Carroll Campbell III, the son of a former South Carolina governor.
Thurmond and Scott are vying for the seat occupied by retiring Representative Henry Brown, a five-term Republican.
Both candidates promise to work to repeal Obama’s health- care bill and vow never to support a tax increase. Both also want to replace the tax code with a flat tax on purchases.
“In terms of policies, we don’t see a lot of difference here,” McGee said.
‘Raised Me Right’
Scott, who in 2008 became the first black Republican elected to the state House of Representatives since Reconstruction, is backed by the anti-tax Club for Growth. In endorsing him March 23, club president Chris Chocola said Scott “has fought for the principles of individual liberty and limited government in South Carolina.”
Mike Connolly, a club spokesman, said its members have contributed more than $100,000 to Scott.
Scott was raised by a single mother, and credits her with instilling in him a belief in small-government. According to McKeown, who has known Scott for decades, when people ask the candidate on the stump why he’s conservative, he tells them “because my mama raised me right.”