Why Jim DeMint's Would-Be Successor Refuses to Be 'The Black Republican'

It's a little tricky to talk about this — the history Tim Scott might help start to re-write for the GOP as its only black Congressman turned Senator — without dwelling too much on the history of affirmative action... and South Carolina.

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Now that Jim DeMint has quit the Senate, here are two truths we already knew: One, the Republican Party will struggle to win national elections until it appeals to a broader voter set than its very white and male coalition. Two, Republican Rep. Tim Scott is black. But connecting Truth No. 1 and Truth No. 2 is a little awkward, because marveling at any racial progress highlighted by Truth No. 2 makes it hard to ignore the history that created Truth No. 1. Scott appears to be the leading contender to replace DeMint, who gave up his South Carolina seat to go run the Heritage Foundation, hinting that he'd like Gov. Nikki Haley to pick Scott as his sucessor. But Scott doesn't appear to like making a big deal out of being the first black Republican elected to the House from South Carolina since 1901 — or the only black Republican in Congress right now. So it's a little tricky to talk about this — the more recent history Scott might help start to re-write for the GOP right now — without dwelling too much on the history of affirmative action... and South Carolina.

Scott seems, understandably, to not want his race to be the first thing you notice about him. Affirmative action is still a powerful force in the GOP, as we saw this election when Scott Brown attacked Elizabeth Warren for claiming she was American Indian as a law professor. "I'm not going to be 'the black Republican.' I'm going to be a Republican who happens to be black who will talk about issues that I'm passionate about that are specific to the agenda that I want to accomplish," Scott told the Christian Broadcasting Network in 2010. But since Florida Rep. Allen West lost his reelection in November, Scott will be the only black Republican in Congress when it returns for its next term. In early 2011, Scott refused to join the Congressional Black Caucus, saying, "My campaign was never about race." But fellow Republicans clearly noticed what he looks like. In March, Rep. Trey Gowdy told National Journal's Ben Terris:

"We are naive if we don’t believe that certain topics are best broached and best discussed by people who come from certain community groups... He's in a prominent position in our party, and he should be."

Now that Scott is the presumed frontrunner to replace DeMint, Republicans are being less coy than using the word "certain." Like this: "It would be historic for an Indian American governor from the Deep South to appoint an African American to the U.S. Senate," a state Republican official told Talking Points Memo's Evan McMorris-Santoro. Surveying the political scene in the state, CNN's Peter Hamby says, "If [South Carolina Gov. Nikki] Haley does appoint someone from the South Carolina delegation, it's hard to imagine her passing over the state's lone African-American member of Congress."

In explaining Scott's solid chances for getting DeMint's seat, The Washington Post's Aaron Blake is more explicit than "certain." He writes, "Given the premium the Republican Party has placed on diversification since the 2012 election, adding Scott to its Senate caucus would be nothing but good." In this instance, however, sentences about how we've come so far are very quickly followed by sentences about how we have not come that far after all. Blake notes that it's unlikely that South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley will appoint herself to the seat, in part because:

[Haley] would be allowing her rival, state Senate Pro Tem Glenn McConnell (R), to become governor, which as we’ve written before is a tricky situation and could harm the party more broadly (McConnell is a Confederate history buff who was once photographed alongside two African-Americans dressed as slaves). 

(Update: A reader points out that McConnell is now lieutenant governor.) Scott holds the late segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond's old seat. Y'all: Strom Thurmond was in the Senate in 2003. That's less than 10 years ago. You can't congratulate South Carolina on its progress without noticing it took so long.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.