Wednesday night, while the political world in Washington, D.C., was split between attending a congressional charity baseball game and watching the first round of Democratic presidential debates, several dozen people gathered in a reception room downtown.
Snacking on skewered meat and sipping wine, a diverse crowd of lobbyists, political aides and aspiring politicians were there to hear from South Carolina’s Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the U.S. Senate and one of just two in Congress.
Scott was there to pitch a possible solution to what some say is the greatest challenge facing the Republican Party and its survival: Cultivating successful conservative candidates who show the GOP has appeal beyond being overwhelmingly white and male.
That goal is the focus of a new nonprofit, the Empower America Project. Scott came up with the idea and will serve as “honorary chairman.”
“This is a day where we start the process of making sure that the conservative movement continues to reflect America and all its brilliance and all its diversity,” Scott told attendees of the Wednesday night event convened to celebrate the Empower America Project’s official launch.
That day was actually nearly a decade in the making.
When Scott ran for Congress in 2010, he recalled being one of dozens of minority candidates on ballots across the country vying to represent the GOP brand in elected office. Scott thought it was the beginning of something bigger, where people would begin to recognize the need to create “a system, a pipeline” to help conservatives of color compete and win.
“I had hoped somebody else would have figured (it) out,” Scott told The State in a recent interview, explaining why he was now taking up the task himself.
In many ways, this new GOP diversity initiative is the next phase of Scott’s enduring quest to make the Republican brand more hospitable to non-white men. It also is the latest example of Scott stepping up to the plate when he’d hoped it wouldn’t fall to him, again.
Several months ago, Scott was credited with forcing his party to reckon with the racially offensive rhetoric of longtime Republican U.S. Rep. Steve King of Iowa, which resulted in the revocation of all of King’s committee assignments.
At the time, Scott said it was a “burden” to always have to speak first on issues of race, but he stressed last week he wasn’t looking to diversify the Republican Party simply to fill Congress with more lawmakers of color to back him up. Instead, he wants all Republicans to understand they have a role to play in proving that their party is inclusive.
“You shouldn’t have to be a minority to call people out,” he said.
At the same time, Scott said, he has continued to be a leading voice on racial issues in the GOP because there are few others.
“I’ve always been the kind of guy who thinks, if someone else is gonna say it, why repeat it. If no one else can say it, or will say it, there is a chance for me to engage in a meaningful dialogue. People are willing to listen to you if someone is willing to say it,” he explained.
“l’m finally getting to the point where candidate recruitment, and the success of those candidates, requires a different voice in the room,” Scott continued. “ It’s helpful to have been that person, as a candidate who found a path to success.”
Same approach ‘not enough’
The Empower America Project’s debut event will be a conference in Washington, D.C., sometime in September. There, 200 conservative aspiring politicians who represent underrepresented demographics of the GOP will be invited to participate in what Scott called a “macro boot camp” to learn the ins and outs of running a campaign.
From there, the Empower America Project’s leadership will identify close to 20 candidates to participate in the “micro boot camp” that focuses on strategies that non-traditional Republican candidates need to know.
“Too often, because we are hungry and excited for diverse candidates, we push them to the front of the line and wish them best. ‘Good luck.’ It’s not gonna be enough,” Scott explained. “Or we just give them the normal training. Not enough. You actually have to have a different appreciation than one might imagine.
“Diverse candidates will actually need, most often, a different training program that goes a little deeper in their communities, deeper in understanding what the heartbeats are within their constituents, so we can actually see success at the ballot box,” he added.
The ultimate goal for the organization is to select three to six candidates from this pool to fully endorse and support in their bids for elected offices, which could be at the congressional, state or local levels.
But Scott won’t have any final decision-making authority over the training model he talks about developing, or veto-power over the list of top-tier recruits. In fact, he won’t be involved in any of the day-to-day operations of the organization.
Instead, as the honorary chairman, he will “help folks get focused on the important role that we can play and the important mission that we actually have.” He said he would advise on staffing decisions and “help with encouraging donors.”
In other words, Scott will be a public face to sell the efforts of Jimmy Kemp, the current chairman of the Jack Kemp Foundation — named for his father, the late U.S. congressman from New York who coined the phrase “bleeding-heart conservatism” — who will serve as executive director.
It was always intended to be this way, Scott said: Congressional rules prevent lawmakers from running their own non-profit organizations that are not required to disclose donors publicly.
Yet asked whether Scott was worried about the message it would send to have a white male executive director of an organization looking to recruit and train minority and women politicians, Scott clarified that the Empower America Project was eying all candidates not well represented in the Republican Party, from millennials to Jews. He said he hadn’t thought about whether recruitment would extend to gay conservatives, too.
Ultimately, being an “honorary chairman” of the Empower America Project might actually end up being a gift for Scott, a chance to be a part of something important to him that he doesn’t always have to talk about.
But on Wednesday, it seemed clear that Scott would still be the one asked to speak. At the close of the launch reception, Kemp invited Scott and a few of his congressional colleagues to the podium to deliver final remarks. Scott spoke for them all.