Republican U.S. Sen. Tim Scott cruised to victory Tuesday in a historic win as South Carolina’s first African American elected to the U.S. Senate and the first black elected to statewide office since Reconstruction.
The win ensures a place in the GOP firmament for rising star Scott – a North Charleston native appointed to the Senate seat in 2012 when conservative icon Jim DeMint resigned.
Scott said he is “thankful for the evolution that's occurred in South Carolina, where we are a state where we've seen more progress made ... than perhaps any other state in the nation.”
Scott, 49, will finish DeMint’s two-year unexpired term and plans to run again in 2016 for a full six-year term. He faced only token GOP opposition in the June primary and easily defeated Democrat Joyce Dickerson and the American Party’s Jill Bossi Tuesday.
Dickerson was one of three black Democrats to run for statewide offices Tuesday. None won.
Scott’s historic victory sets him up to become a leading voice in the Republican Party. But S.C. observers differ on what exactly Scott’s win means for the GOP and the state.
To some, Scott’s election is a sign of the progress the state has made in moving beyond race and past an era when states-rights, segregationist Southerners fled the civil rights-era Democratic Party for the GOP.
Others say Scott’s election does not change the fact that political rifts still often are drawn along the same racial lines.
Scott says he will not serve more than two full terms, adding he “would have to hear the audible voice of the Lord to be there in 2028. I may have to hear it to be there in 2022.”
However long he holds the Senate seat, admirers say Scott has a chance to shape the Republican Party’s next chapter – one where the GOP is seeking in-roads into minority voters who will be essential to the party’s growth.
Scott said he wants to help shape the conversation about how to move the GOP and the country forward.
The Republican Party still has work to do, regardless of whether it took control of the Senate back, as expected Tuesday, he said.
“I want a chance to motivate and encourage and inspire people to make the right decisions for their kids’ future by the policies that we present to them and by the ideas that we discuss. If we do that, I believe the history of America will be better in 20 years.”
‘He was a statistic’
Scott is one of Nse Ekpo’s heroes, “and not just because he’s black,” said the S.C. GOP’s second vice-chairman, a 35-year-old African-American.
Like Scott, Ekpo also was raised by a single parent, his mother, after Ekpo’s father died of malaria.
Ekpo grew up in Sumter — the hometown of the state’s senior U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, South Carolina’s only Democrat in Congress — adding he felt pressure to be a Democrat while growing up.
“(T)he only option that you’re presented with that is accepted socially is Democrat,” he said.
But Ekpo said his mother taught him to have an open mind and “to really seek out what you believe.”
Ekpo, now a doctoral student in musical conducting at the University of South Carolina, said his values always have been more conservative.
African-Americans’ loyalty to the Democratic Party “has disenfranchised us in many ways,” he said, adding black votes are seen as “secure and in the back pocket” of Democrats.
But Scott’s election could help minorities feel more welcome in the Republican Party, Ekpo said, adding a word of caution: “I’m not going to say the floodgate is open.”
Scott has a “real story” and a “positive message” that is refreshing in a time when “our political discourse is more poisoned” than ever, Ekpo said.
“Tim is different. That guy, he came from nothing. Single parent, not a good student. He was a statistic. Now, he is elected to the U.S. Senate. You cannot write a better story than that.”
‘Not ... a post-racial South Carolina’
Democratic state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter of Orangeburg said Scott’s victory — “without question” — is historic because of his race.
But “to read much more than that ... would be a mistake,” she said.
Scott’s victory “does not symbolize a post-racial South Carolina,” said Cobb-Hunter, a state lawmaker since 1992 and a former House minority leader.
An October Winthrop Poll showed about 12 percent of black voters supporting Scott. Cobb-Hunter said black people likely will reject Scott because he is a Republican in a GOP-led state that “is in bad shape when it comes to addressing issues for communities of color – period.”
But Cobb-Hunter said she hopes Democrats and African Americans do not “write Tim Scott off.”
“(W)e need to figure out how to engage him on issues that are important to us so that we can give him a chance to be a senator not just for Republicans, but for all South Carolinians,” she said. “If we just shut him down, or shut him out, I don’t see how we will have that opportunity.”
‘Move past these issues’
State Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston, said Scott’s race has figured heavily into discussions of why his success has been unique.
But Scott’s ascension in the GOP and his win Tuesday is the result of “the person (Scott), is and the character and work ethic that he has demonstrated so consistently,” Thurmond said.
Thurmond is the son of legendary U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, who shepherded Southern, white states-rights segregationists out of the Democratic Party and into the GOP, beginning the rise of the now-dominant Republican Party.
Scott co-chaired the elder Thurmond’s final campaign for U.S. Senate in 1996, saying at the time the senator’s views on race had evolved.
The younger state Sen. Thurmond, who was on Charleston County Council with Scott and ran unsuccessfully against Scott for the 1st District congressional seat, agrees.
“For generations now, our children have been taught to not judge people by their race or gender,” Thurmond wrote in an email to The State, reflecting on what Scott’s win means to him.
“As we see these barriers broken in business, education and government, we as a state and country can move past these issues and focus on the future for all people. As Tim has said, ‘Our best is yet to come.’ I agree and look forward to his leadership.”
‘I don’t hate anybody’
Still, Columbia civil-rights activist and black media pioneer Nathaniel Abraham Sr. does not expect blacks to accept Republican Scott.
“Not as long as I'm alive,” said the 80 year old, a self-described independent who is “Republican at heart.”
As a civil-rights activist in 1968, Abraham went to S.C. State University in Orangeburg to act as a liaison between police and students who were protesting a nearby segregated bowling alley.
The standoff ended in bloodshed now known as the Orangeburg Massacre, with police shooting and killing three protesters and wounding 27 more.
While a witness to the sometimes bloody fight against equal rights that helped birth the modern Southern GOP, Abraham said he resisted calls to switch parties.
“Everybody was trying to get me to be a Democrat,” Abraham said. “Naturally, I was inquisitive, and I started asking about the Republicans. And the answer was always the same: ‘We hate them.’ And I don't hate anybody.”
Having cast votes himself for Republicans and Democrats, including President Obama, Abraham said he “would hope that people on my side of the street would see (Scott’s win) as an opportunity and take advantage, instead of voting for just whoever puts a ‘D’ in front of his name.
“We're never going to get anywhere with people if you never talk to them.”
‘Another page yet to be written’
Scott’s win is a “real tale of ironies,” said University of South Carolina historian Bobby Donaldson.
“(T)wo generations ago, the majority of African Americans were Republicans, but Republicans of a different ideology.”
Leading voices in South Carolina’s modern Republican movement championed states rights in the early 1960s, Donaldson said, adding few likely imagined that Scott’s election could happen.
Now, Scott and Gov. Nikki Haley, the state’s first female and Indian-American governor, are examples Republicans can highlight of their changing party.
Scott’s “incredible political journey” and “strong conservative values” appeal to S.C. voters who have elected an African American who shares their values, Donaldson said, adding Scott has a “unique opportunity.”
“(H)ere is someone who has a compelling life story, not born into wealth, who recognizes that there are inequities. His own story has a possibility of redirecting interest to some critical social issues that are paralyzing places like South Carolina,” Donaldson said. “I recognize history when I see it, and this is historic.
“But there’s another page yet to be written.”
‘Picked me up with his faith’
Scott’s win on Tuesday will “inspire young people to make a difference no matter their background,” said Wendy Barba, a close friend who Scott ushered down the aisle at her April wedding.
But, Barba says, it breaks her heart to “watch people firing daggers” at her friend, who is “very much the same person” now that he was two decades ago when they met in their late-20s.
Scott has “always been anxious to do something to help,” Barba said. “He wanted to change what he felt wasn’t going right. He really wanted to make a difference.”
Scott is misunderstood by critics who say he toes the Tea Party line, Barba said. As a businessman, Scott “makes decisions based on good, moral, financial decisions” and “doesn’t have any other motives.”
The two briefly lost contact when Barba, then 33, was diagnosed with breast cancer and “kind of went into hiding,” she said.
Barba had been undergoing chemotherapy when she ran into Scott unexpectedly at the mall.
Scott was “very surprised because I hadn’t told him” about the cancer, Barba said. “It upset him so much that he hadn’t been in contact with me. He promised me from that time on that he would stay in touch.”
That moment “solidified” their friendship, Barba said, adding Scott helped her start a business for cancer patients, encouraged her to set goals and achieve them, and inspired her to start going to church again.
“If I was stressed, I could always count on him. He always picked me up with his faith.”