By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 23, 2010; A01
The Republican Party stepped away from its long and uncomfortable history of racial and ethnic politics in South Carolina on Tuesday, nominating an Indian American woman for governor and an African American man for the House.
Nikki Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, overwhelmingly captured the GOP gubernatorial nomination over Rep. J. Gresham Barrett -- despite a whisper campaign insinuating that she is not really a Christian, as she says she is. And in the 1st Congressional District, Tim Scott, a black state lawmaker from Charleston, convincingly defeated Charleston County Council member Paul Thurmond, a son of the late senator Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). Barrett and Thurmond are white.
Although Haley still faces a competitive general-election campaign, Scott is expected to win his solidly Republican district in November. Both candidates were backed by a party determined to attract minority candidates and voters.
"Tonight, to me, is one of those pages you turn with a smile on your face," said Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele, who is black. "But it's also part of a longer narrative that the party has struggled to tell over the past 20 to 25 years. Within our ranks, among our grass-roots, are a number of very exciting and very engaging candidates who don't look like or sound like what people have come to expect to be typical Republicans. I'm very proud of that."
The flip side of that upbeat assessment is the reality that the GOP is still not the party of choice for minorities, despite years of effort and outreach. Scott, should he win in November, would become the first black Republican member of Congress since 2003, when Oklahoman J.C. Watts retired. And Haley would be only the second sitting Republican governor of color, after Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, a fellow Indian American.
Three other minority Republican candidates are seeking governorships this year: Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Brian Sandoval of Nevada, who are Hispanic, and Duke Aiona of Hawaii, who is of native Hawaiian descent. And although more than 40 minority Republican candidates began the year seeking congressional seats, the vast majority have either dropped out or lost their bids for the GOP nomination, or are expected to.
"I surely don't want to make light of Tim Scott," said Watts, now a Washington lobbyist. "The fact that he's gotten this far speaks extremely well for him as a candidate. But if anybody thinks that electing Tim Scott is the end of it, that we've arrived, God help them."
GOP leaders have emphasized attracting minority candidates in part because white voters represent an ever-shrinking share of the electorate.
Republicans see common ground in particular with Indian Americans, Vietnamese Americans and Latinos, especially small-business owners who are drawn to the party's fiscally conservative message of low taxes and less government regulation.
But there are other cultural barriers, such as religion, which became an issue for Haley this month. Fundamentalist Christians compose a large slice of the Republican base, particularly in the South. Both Haley, raised a Sikh, and Jindal, raised a Hindu, converted to Christianity at relatively young ages. Judging from the effort by some Haley detractors to question her faith, it is not clear whether South Carolina Republicans would have looked as kindly on her if she were still a practicing Sikh.
The other challenge for the GOP is simply finding qualified candidates. Haley and Scott are experienced politicians who have held public office and won reelection. Few of the other minority candidates on the GOP side boasted that level of experience.
"You've got to start lower and move up," said Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), who together with Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) was so impressed with Scott -- and eager to recruit an African American to the House -- that they contributed money to his primary campaign. McCarthy vowed that, despite the continuing challenges of minority recruitment, there will be more women and minorities elected to Congress this November than ever.
"This road is not a sprint, it's a marathon," he said. "It's going to take us time, but it is great movement and I think we're making greater strides than we've ever made before in this election cycle."
Adolphus Belk Jr., a political scientist at Winthrop University in South Carolina, noted that neither Scott nor Haley won by emphasizing their race. They campaigned as candidates firmly rooted in the fiscal and social conservatism of the local Republican Party. What impact their wins will have on the national discussion about race and ethnicity is uncertain.
"It's important for the Republican Party to have people like Haley and Scott from a symbolic perspective," Belk said. "As far as the substance is concerned, there are some people within the party with a genuine interest in furthering the conversation. But that's a conversation that's been going on within the Republican Party for some time."