Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) Senator-designate Tim Scott (Rainier Ehrhardt/AP)

“It is very important to me, as a minority female, that Congressman Scott earned this seat,” said Gov. Nikki Haley (R-S.C.) announcing her appointment of Rep. Tim Scott to fill the seat being vacated by Sen. Jim DeMint. “He earned this seat for the person that he is. He earned this seat for the results he has shown.” That Haley has to pound that message home says a lot about her party and it’s a warning to some Democrats.

I need not recount the decades worth of Republican campaigns and rhetoric that cast African Americans as unqualified takers denying deserving whites of jobs. The 1990 “Hands” ad run by the late-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) against then-Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt was the epitome of the GOP’s politics of resentment.

You needed that job, and you were the best qualified, but they had to give it to a minority, because of a racial quota. Is that really fair? Harvey Gantt says it is. Gantt supports Ted Kennedy’s racial quota law that makes the color of your skin more important than your qualifications. Your vote on this issue next Tuesday. For racial quotas, Harvey Gantt. Against racial quotas, Jesse Helms.

The demographic demolition of the GOP has many in the party trying to figure out how to appeal to the people of color they shunned with their policies and rhetoric and who shunned them in kind at the ballot box. Some think all it takes is a Hispanic surname, extra melanin or two X chromosomes. That’s why Haley’s emphasis on Scott having “earned” his political elevation stood out for me. It was a direct rebuttal to the notion that “the color of your skin [is] more important than your qualifications.”  

With his appointment, Scott is the first African American senator from the South since Reconstruction. But if Scott wins the special election in 2014 he will be the first African American elected to the Senate from the Deep South or from South Carolina since Reconstruction.

By all accounts, Scott is a capable legislator who shares the ideological viewpoint of the woman who appointed him and the man he will replace. That he opted out of joining the Democrat-dominated Congressional Black Caucus when he got to Washington in 2011 isn’t a knock against him. If anything it should be recognized as a bow to political reality. But it would be a mistake for Democrats and progressives who don’t know anything about Scott — except that he’s a black Republican — to dismiss him as mere window dressing for for the GOP.

Lord knows we’re all used to that sort of thing. Herman Cain was the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination based on a showman’s ability to grab attention and an economic plan so nonsensical even he couldn’t explain it.  Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) made a name for himself within the GOP and nationally with his offensive, racially tinged comments about Democrats and President Obama. They are just two recent examples — don’t get me started on Alan Keyes.

“Tim Scott is a good guy. I like him,” Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) told me. The assistant Democratic Leader in the House made it clear that Scott “certainly is no gadfly. He’s not anything close to [being an] Allen West….[H]e’s serious.” That’s good for South Carolina, good for the Republican Party and good for the nation.