Columbia, SC — I SAT DOWN with Rick Wade recently to catch up over lunch.
I hadn’t talked with him since November 2010, when he still was working in the Obama administration as senior adviser and deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Commerce Department. He had been a key part of the Obama campaign in Iowa and South Carolina. The work he and others such as Anton Gunn did helped produce a president. You might remember that in 2008, then-Sen. Obama’s campaign took off after he trounced Hillary Clinton in the S.C. Democratic primary, giving him the momentum to take the nomination and eventually the presidency.
Mr. Wade and I talked about a number of things, including the recent death of his mom (there are few things more difficult than losing Mom), his fledgling global business development firm and a July column he wrote for USA Today about the need for hip-hop stars to use their money and influence to help create jobs and redirect America’s youth.
He talked about a recent business trip overseas and how it’s so important for today’s youth to be able to compete globally. He said he had stopped by a summer camp in Columbia and was pleased to learn that the kids were learning Mandarin Chinese.
While we had a good conversation, it was clear that there was still something else on his mind.
I soon learned what it was:
“Warren, what do you think about me running against Tim Scott for the Senate?”
I wasn’t expecting that one.
It would be intriguing, I said. But it also would be an uphill climb for a Democrat in a Republican-dominated state. And Sen. Scott is raising gobs of money.
That said, a Scott-Wade matchup would allow South Carolina to see a campaign unlike any it — and few if any other states — has ever seen: a bonafide race for U.S. Senate between two African-American candidates.
And while their skin color would make the tilt historic, it also could make race less of an issue in a state that doesn’t elect black candidates statewide: If Mr. Scott doesn’t face a primary challenger, and it doesn’t appear he will, and Mr. Wade does decide to join the race (as of Wednesday it looks like he’s leaning that way more heavily) and manages to do so without Democratic opposition, this would be a campaign worth watching, even with the decided edge GOP candidates have in South Carolina.
It would be intriguing to see two black candidates with opposite viewpoints on a laundry list of issues debating them before the people of the Palmetto State. At the end of the day, voters would be asked to choose not based on race but on these candidates’ ideas and philosophies.
Of course, Mr. Wade isn’t conceding anything. He believes he can articulate a vision — one focused on education and jobs, among other things — that many South Carolinians would agree with. He said he would take “my message to the people, wherever they are, whoever they are.”
While he’s never served in elected office, Mr. Wade ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state in 2002. He crisscrossed the state introducing himself to South Carolinians as a moderate with a business agenda and a conservative fiscal message. He likes to refer to himself as a country boy from Lancaster who leans on his values and faith to guide him.
The USC and Harvard graduate is a former executive at Palmetto GBA, a subsidiary of Blue Cross Blue Shield. He oversaw the S.C. Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services for three years under then-Gov. Jim Hodges.
While Mr. Scott hasn’t run statewide, he has participated in and won his share of races, having served on the Charleston County Council and in the S.C. and U.S. House of Representatives. When Gov. Haley chose him in December to replace Jim DeMint, who resigned to run the Heritage Foundation in Washington, Mr. Scott became the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction. Today, he is the nation’s only African-American senator and one of only eight in America’s history.
Mr. Scott has spent the months since joining the Senate visiting the state’s 46 counties. His office sent an email out this week trumpeting the fact that he had completed a statewide tour. “Senator Scott has hosted and participated in a variety of events in each county, including town hall meetings, employer site visits, meetings with civic and church organizations, school visits, and even sporting events,” the email said.
Mr. Scott is well-liked among Republicans not just in South Carolina but across the country. In many respects, he’s seen as the future of the party as it tries to diversify its ranks and formulate a message that broadens its reach among minorities.
Although many African-Americans look warily at black Republicans, not all have rejected Mr. Scott, even if they don’t embrace his GOP label. During a visit to The State in February, the senator said African-Americans have told him that while they might not vote for him, they appreciate his upbeat message, and they express pride in his service.
Mr. Scott is an intelligent, driven, likable man who has overcome many odds. He tells anyone who will listen about how he grew up poor in a black community in North Charleston, the devastating effects of his parents’ divorce, his single mother’s tireless efforts to care for the family, flunking out of school and finding his way back. He got his act together, completed college and enjoyed a successful career in the insurance business.
With Mr. Scott having a real edge in this red state, the only way Mr. Wade could have a real shot is by raising much more money than he did in his attempt at secretary of state. Sen. Scott has around $2.5 million — and counting — to spend in 2014.
On Wednesday, Mr. Wade told me he’s given himself until September to decide. He says he’s getting enthusiastic support and commitments; his focus now is on making sure he can pull a campaign financing plan together, something he’s encouraged about. Of course, his fundraising would get a big jolt if he could convince the prolific fundraiser he helped launch to the White House to help raise money.
If Mr. Wade dips his toe in these waters, he might as well seek President Obama’s help. After all, the opposition certainly would place the Obama label on him, something Mr. Wade says he would welcome because the president has a record to be proud of.
Whatever happens, one thing would be sure: South Carolina finally would elect an African-American in a statewide vote. That alone is something many of us thought we’d never see in our lifetimes.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.