The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tim Scott treads – carefully – through South Carolina and D.C. political thicket

Tim Scott, the junior senator from South Carolina, is a reliably conservative vote, most recently his “no” on Wednesday’s bipartisan budget agreement. But while the Republican’s record mirrors that of other tea party-backed members of Congress, his rhetoric is noticeably cooler.

That much was clear during his recent conversation with members of the Trotter Group, a national association of African-American columnists, who spent a few days in Washington meeting with policymakers from various parties and persuasions.

Though proud of his record, Scott led with biography, his life story as a confused and unsettled child of divorce, moving from Michigan back to South Carolina. “From 7 years old to about 14, I kind of just drifted,” he said, mostly in the wrong direction. A business owner mentor stepped in to assist his hard-working mother, he said, and “started talking to me about thinking your way out of poverty.” Scott became a business owner – working in insurance, an expertise that comes in handy when explaining his opposition to the Affordable Care Act – a Christian and the state’s first black senator since Reconstruction.

Now, along with Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey, with whom he said he’s had some “really good conversations already,” Scott is one of just two African Americans in the U.S. Senate. How will he stay there? Scott, the former U.S. congressman appointed by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to fill the Senate seat of Jim DeMint, who resigned to lead the Heritage Foundation, has been serving since January. He will have to win an election next year to serve the two years that remain in DeMint’s term, which should not be difficult with his antiabortion, small government, low tax views in a state with only one Democrat, James Clyburn, in its Congressional delegation. Scott had to beat the son of South Carolina icon Strom Thurmond in the primary to win his House seat, which was no small feat.

But there’s the example of the state’s senior senator, Lindsey Graham, who is facing challenges from those who question his conservative credentials in his own 2014 race. Scott — who has declined to endorse Graham — has to be mindful of the voters who have gotten him this far while trying to appeal to the largest possible constituency.

In the Washington meeting, Scott listened to research from David Bositis, acting vice president of the Civic Engagement and Governance Institute of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which found that in South Carolina, 65 percent overall and 85 percent of African Americans favored the Medicaid expansion. Scott, who is against it, turned the conversation to “health outcomes” as opposed to buying health insurance. “Our focus ought to be on preventative medicine,” Scott said.

Scott acknowledged the above national average 18 percent uninsured in his state, about 700,000, he said. He talked about a program at his church that brings doctors, nurses and dentists into communities that have challenges. “Can we make health care more accessible and affordable?” he asked. “The answer is yes. Does it happen better when we have the federal government play a larger and larger role? My answer is no.”

Scott never used the term “Obamacare”; for that, you have to look at his campaign Web site.

On race, Scott was similarly careful, touting his history of impressive wins in majority white districts, though the black voters there usually favor the Democrat. “If we spend less time trying to just attract the minorities to our party and more time trying to win people to our philosophy, then the elections will take care of themselves,” he said.

“It’s important for Cory and myself to work together across these aisles and find some common ground on some legislative path forward,” Scott said.”We believe there’s an opportunity on the issue of education to do so.” When I asked if he would ever consider joining the Congressional Black Caucus so he and his friend could have more time for policy discussions, he said no, he didn’t see a need to join. “We’re better together,” he said.

Scott knows his audience, all of them. He can give personal testimony about the role of Jesus Christ in his life at the faith-centered Bob Jones Academy in Greenville, S.C., and answer questions with talking points – as most politicians do — at a Washington meeting of journalists.

His Democratic opponent next year could be former Commerce Department official and South Carolina native Rick Wade, who has entered the race for the nomination and who is also African American.

Scott has managed to toe a strict conservative line while being firm and friendly. Right now, he is ahead in the race to make history as the first African American elected statewide in South Carolina since Reconstruction. But South Carolina politics is never easy.