South Carolina Republicans chose Tim Scott, a black state legislator, over the son of a former segregationist presidential candidate today as their pick to fill an open U.S. House seat.
Scott, 44, beat Paul Thurmond, 34, in a run-off today. With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Scott had 68 percent of the vote to 32 percent for Thurmond, according to the Associated Press.
Thurmond is the son of the late U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond, who ran for president in 1948 as a segregationist candidate on the States Rights Democratic Party ticket. During a Senate career that spanned almost 50 years, he served as a Democrat then switched to the Republican Party.
Scott’s win puts him in a position to become the first black Republican to serve in Congress in eight years and the first black Republican to represent South Carolina in the House or Senate since the late 1800s.
The district -- which stretches along South Carolina’s Coast and includes Fort Sumter, the site of the first military clash of the Civil War -- “is a Republican seat,” said Brian McGee, a professor at the College of Charleston with an expertise in political communication.
The district is currently represented by Republican Henry Brown, who is retiring; no Democrat has held the seat since 1981.
Scott will face Democrat Ben Frasier, a perennial candidate for the seat, in November’s general election.
“This is the most defeated candidate I’ve ever seen,” McGee said of Frasier. “If the Republican candidate doesn’t have any damage, it’s hard to see a Democrat winning this seat.”
Racial issues were conspicuously absent from the Republican primary campaign. “It is hard to find even a whiff of discussion about race in this campaign,” said McGee. “These are two hard-working candidates who have paid their dues and ran serious campaigns.”
McGee said the focus on the contest’s racial implications by outside media upset some voters in the district.
“This is a state which has gotten tired of its reputation for religious and racial intolerance,” he said. “People here see that as a problem of South Carolina’s last generation. There is a fair amount of resentment about a national media that wants to discuss an issue that hasn’t had any impact” on the campaign.
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 Democratic candidate Barack Obama.
“These are exciting times for our party,” Steele said in a statement released after the ballots were counted. Scott and other South Carolina candidates will win “great” victories in November, he said.
Scott enjoyed the backing of some Republicans from outside the state who have been part of a push to diversify the party’s demographic base.
Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who both have been mentioned as possible presidential candidates in 2012, were among those endorsing Scott.
He’s received campaign donations in recent weeks from Karl Rove, a top adviser to former President George W. Bush, and Representatives Eric Cantor of Virginia and Kevin McCarthy of California, two House Republican leaders, Federal Election Commission data shows.
“Tim Scott is part of a new generation of conservative leaders that we need in Washington to ensure that we leave our children a nation with unlimited opportunity instead of a mountain of debt,” Cantor said in a statement.
Members of the anti-tax Club for Growth have also contributed more than $100,000 to Scott’s campaign through the group’s political action committee, according to FEC data.
If Scott wins in November, he would become the first black Republican in Congress since Representative J.C. Watts of Oklahoma decided not to seek re-election and left office in early 2003.
Scott served 13 years on the Charleston County Council before being elected to the state House of Representatives in 2008.
He led in the nine-candidate primary on June 8, winning 32 percent of the vote; Thurmond, a member of the Charleston County Council, came in second with 16 percent. South Carolina requires a runoff if no candidate breaks the 50 percent mark.
Paul Thurmond is one of four children born to Strom Thurmond and his second wife. His father carried four states, including South Carolina, during his 1948 presidential bid. The elder Thurmond in 1957 conducted the longest filibuster in the Senate’s history -- 24 hours and 18 minutes -- to oppose a civil rights measure that ultimately passed.