Sen. Tim Scott, the only African American Republican in the Senate, has a blunt message for his party’s leaders: When it comes to picking judicial nominees and examining their records on race, you can do better.
The senator from South Carolina made his point in a letter to the editor published online Thursday and in print Friday by the Wall Street Journal. Scott’s note came a week after he announced his opposition to Thomas A. Farr, dooming the U.S. District Court nominee’s chances of being confirmed.
Most Republican senators have fallen in line behind President Trump on judicial nominations and other matters. The two most vocal Republican critics of Trump in the Senate, Sens. Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.), are retiring in a few weeks.
But Scott has signaled he is willing to do what most elected Republicans have not during Trump’s presidency — challenge the GOP to change its positions on race, politics and their intersection.
Scott writes in his letter that he was “saddened that in the editorial ‘Democrats and Racial Division’ (Dec. 1) you attempt to deflect the concerns regarding Thomas Farr’s nomination to the federal bench.”
He continues, “While you are right that his nomination should be seen through a wider lens, the solution isn’t simply to decry ‘racial attacks.’ Instead, we should stop bringing candidates with questionable track records on race before the full Senate for a vote.”
Scott offered a similar argument last week as he addressed questions from reporters. At the time, he had not announced whether he would support Farr but had just cast a vote to advance his nomination.
“We are not doing a very good job of avoiding the obvious potholes on race in America, and we ought to be more sensitive when it comes to those issues,” Scott said, speaking of the Republican Party.
Asked how the party should go about doing that, Scott replied that “a lot of folks” around the country could be judges, aside from Farr.
The next day, Scott announced his opposition to Farr. He cited a Justice Department memo published in The Washington Post that looked at the 1984 and 1990 campaigns of then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). The Helms campaign, for which Farr worked, had come under scrutiny for distributing postcards that the Justice Department later said were sent to intimidate black voters from going to the polls.
“This week, a Department of Justice memo written under President George H.W. Bush was released that shed new light on Mr. Farr’s activities. This, in turn, created more concerns. Weighing these important factors, this afternoon I concluded that I could not support Mr. Farr’s nomination,” Scott explained in his statement.
In July, the White House withdrew the nomination of Ryan Bounds to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. Bounds faced criticism for articles he wrote as an undergraduate that ridiculed multiculturalism and groups concerned with racial issues. Scott had raised concerns about those writings.
The Wall Street Journal editorial Scott responded to this week argues that “Democrats are taking racial politics to new heights.” The editorial highlighted Scott’s position on Farr.
“There’s no reason to doubt the sincerity of Mr. Scott, the Senate’s only black Republican. But Democrats will see Mr. Farr’s defeat as a vindication of their most underhanded and inflammatory racial tactics,” the editorial says.
Republicans hold a slim 51-to-49 Senate majority. With Flake refusing to back Trump’s judicial nominees until he gets a vote on a bill to protect special counsel Robert S. Mueller III from being fired, Scott has become a decisive vote on controversial nominees such as Farr.
Things will soon be different. Next year, Republicans will have a 53-to-47 advantage over Democrats, reducing the power of a single Republican defection.
Nevertheless, Scott could come under renewed attention.
With Flake and Corker retiring, Republicans looking for lawmakers in their party to stand up to Trump might increasingly turn their focus to Scott.
Scott, along with Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.), will be one of just two African American Republicans in the next Congress.