On Gay Marriage: “I am where the Black community is,” Scott says, careful to emphasize Black community, which, according to the Associated Press exit polls, voted 7 out of 10 in favor of overturning the decision to allow gay marriage in California. “I believe marriage is between a man and woman.”
Immigration: “The immigration issue is easy,” he says with a shrug. “We want to make sure the local law enforcement is empowered to enforce the laws of the country.”
Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: “We have to continue to pursue the folks we believe caused 9-11 and find Osama Bin Laden,” he says. “You always fight a war on someone else’s soil.”
It’s difficult to find any issues on the Republican platform with which Scott disagrees, or any details he is willing to share about his national positions. “All I know about is what I’ve experienced for 15 years. That’s been state and local politics,” he says. “Outside of the First Congressional District, the national issues don’t plague me.”
Scott may be cutting a new path to national politics, but he is not alone. He is among a small class of celebrated Republican candidates–Tea Party-approved African-American conservatives who could redefine what it means to be Black and Republican. In 2010, there were about 32 Blacks running for Republican seats in primary contests. While most have fizzled out or have large odds stacked against them, the most prominent–Ryan Frazier of Colorado’s 7th District, Allen West of South Florida’s 22nd District, and Scott–have solid shots of making history in Obama’s “post-racial” America.
“If the outreach is done right, it could be quite influential in the long run,” says Thomas B. Edsall, author of Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power. “The Black Democratic leadership has been dominated by very orthodox liberal leadership. And there has been no real challenge to this at all.”
Yet, the 2008 election–in which about 95 percent of African-Americans voted for Barack Obama–may have had the unintended consequences that emboldened Blacks on the other side of the political divide. And they just may be the best hope in capturing the elusive Black Republican vote.
Frazier, the 33-year-old candidate from Colorado’s Seventh District, says Obama’s win did not motivate him to run for Congress, but he admits it cleared some racial hurdles for future Black office seekers. “President Obama’s election to office was not only historic, but it sent a clear message through the country that we’ve now reached a time when a minority [candidate] can have broader appeal.”
But is the Republican Party committed to embracing Black candidates and aggressively courting African-American electorate? Or is this just another false start among many that was promised when J.C. Watts became the Black Republican face of the House of Representatives?
“I don’t believe we are in a post-racial society because we have a Black president,” says J.C. Watts. “And I am not willing to say that race is not an issue and that racism is dead no more than I am not prepared to say that the Republican Party has concerned themselves with establishing a deeper relationship with the Black community.”
BEFORE SCOTT RAN for office, he ran the football on a partial scholarship from Presbyterian College. He later transferred to Charleston Southern University in his hometown and graduated with a degree in political science. He was failing four subjects in high school, but managed to turn his life around. “I was fortunate to have a mother who knew how to dispense love at the end of a switch,” is a common refrain on the campaign trail. His father was in the Air Force and split with his mother when he was just 7. He often talks about his mentor, a white conservative who owned a local Chick-fil-A and taught him that he could “think his way out of poverty.” He worked for New York Life after college, and started his own insurance business (now Tim Scott Allstate).
By the time he decided to run for office in 1995, he was a born-again Christian, conservative on cultural issues (anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage) and pro-business on economic issues. Maurice Washington, a Black Republican who served on the City Council from 1991 to 1995, remembers when he had a talk with Scott about joining the GOP. “I told him if you want to do it, run as a Republican,” Washington recalls. “You would get better support and have a better chance as a Republican candidate. His views were already conservative, and he connected well.”
Washington also organized the meeting with the influential Blacks. “I said you’ve been getting a bum rap with the community,” Washington recalls. “We have to get you in front of them to dialogue.”
In the South, political machines are fueled by race-baiting and seemingly awkward alliances that can cut across race lines. As a son of South Carolina, Tim Scott knows this first hand. In 1996, Scott was co-chairman for the campaign of Strom Thurmond, an outspoken segregationist who claimed to have changed his stripes later in life. For his part in securing Thurmond’s win, Scott was criticized by local Blacks.
Scott bristles when asked about his affiliation with Thurmond. “Why did the Association of Black Mayors come out and endorse him?” he says. “And why did he get 30 percent of the Black support in his election before I became his co-chairman,” he continues. “When you are looking at it from a historic standpoint and you have not been around him then one’s opinion of Strom from 1920 is obviously very different than one’s opinion among Blacks in South Carolina in 1996.”
Today, the race issue continues to deter Blacks from joining the GOP, despite African-Americans’ conservative leanings.
“The main reason why Blacks don’t go over to Republican Party en masse is not because of some big policy initiative,” says Dr. Melissa Harris-Lacewell, author of Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought. “It is because of things like Black people being left on roofs to die [during Hurricane Katrina]. And what they perceive as racism.”