Yes, the giddiness is almost embarrassing as Republicans congratulate themselves on making history with Congressman Tim Scott tapped to join the U.S. Senate – the only African American in the exclusive club of 100. And no, it’s hardly a quick fix for the party’s troubles attracting minority voters since Scott’s conservative political beliefs will hardly trigger a stampede to the GOP. But Democrats should not discount the man or his symbolism.
Scott’s conservative views and his raised by a hard-working single mom background strike a chord with Americans of every race. His humble thanks to “my lord and savior Jesus Christ” at the Monday announcement of the historic news didn’t hurt, especially in his Southern home. Democrats did nominate an African-American senator who is set to start his second term in the White House, a feat the GOP is far from matching. But in the 113th Congress, Scott will be the only black senator, and he will have an “R” after his name.
Scott, 47, is joined by a deep bench of young, Republican, minority lawmakers poised to lead; they proudly wear their conservative bona fides while discarding the incendiary rhetoric of, for example, Allen West – and you can bet GOP leaders aren’t crying over that Florida congressman’s November defeat. The names include Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen.-elect Ted Cruz of Texas, governors Susana Martinez of New Mexico, Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.
One of those new leaders, Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, chose Scott to replace the departing Jim DeMint, off to head the conservative Heritage Foundation. The appointment was not a surprise. However, she kind of spoiled the moment – Scott will be the first African-American senator from the South since Reconstruction – with a speech that seemed more concerned with convincing everyone that he is not a token. “It is important to me, as a minority female, that Congressman Scott earned this seat,” Haley said on Monday. “He earned this seat for the person that he is. He earned this seat with the results he has shown.” It’s as though she doesn’t quite believe it herself, but it’s nice to know how many times a person can use the word “earned” in one statement.
Scott paid tribute to his strict upbringing, the “strong mom that understood that love sometimes comes at the end of a switch,” and left no doubt that he is a Republican, though with his House voting record and down-the-line opposition to the president’s agenda, particularly the Affordable Care Act, the tea party favorite whose fans include Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee had nothing to prove.
“We have a spending problem, ladies and gentlemen, and not a revenue problem,” Scott said on Monday. The country’s economy is “definitely and definitively on the wrong track.” The anti-tax Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity could and did approve.
Republicans looking for the complete package were quick to heap praise on Scott. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, said in a statement, “Now more than ever, we need lawmakers that will pursue policies that create jobs and spur economic growth and I’m confident that Tim will be a strong partner as we pursue these goals in the coming weeks and months.”
The South Carolina Republican Party said it was “thrilled.”
That other senator from the state, Lindsey Graham, who along with Scott will be on the ballot in 2014, said, “This is a day that’s been long in the making in South Carolina.” After beating up for so long on Susan Rice and President Obama, he must be relieved to say something positive about a black official.
The basking in the moment is premature. The GOP has a long road to travel to win back the African-American vote it attracted not just when it proudly wore the mantle and philosophy of Lincoln, but in 1960 when Richard Nixon won a respectable 32 percent. After Democrats became the party of civil rights, the GOP’s grab for winning margins based on race and class resentment reached a shrill peak with the negative torrent aimed at an African-American president, and the words of a 2012 presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, who spoke with the NAACP mostly to score points with his base and told donors the votes of minorities were bought by “gifts.”
Black voters are not socially, culturally or economically monolithic. They tend to vote that way because the rhetoric and policies of the Republican Party haven’t given them much of a choice. They still may admire the achievements of a Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice, despite disagreements in policy.
While Scott’s conservative positions are not much different from the man he replaces, his statements on hard work and personal responsibility are echoed in church sermons every Sunday. He doesn’t read “angry,” like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a black conservative who flaunts his sharp edges. Scott doesn’t accuse African Americans who disagree with his policy positions of being “brainwashed,” like Herman Cain. And unlike West, who imagined himself a modern-day Harriet Tubman to lead blacks from a Democratic Party “plantation,” Scott, raised in the heart of the former Confederacy, has so far steered clear of slave imagery.
Scott was savvy enough to defeat Strom Thurmond’s son on the way to the House of Representatives. Once there, though, he declined to join the Congressional Black Caucus (“My campaign was never about race”) and floated the idea of impeaching President Obama over the debt ceiling, not actions likely to attract African-American support.
Come January, the former Charleston County Council member will be performing on a much bigger stage, with his actions under close scrutiny. He will have a more complicated task. If he hopes to help himself in 2014, a Senator Scott must burnish his South Carolina conservative credentials, and if he hopes to help his party expand the base, he must convince new voters to give the GOP another look.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3