(The Root) — Poised to begin his second term as head of state and leader of the free world, there’s really no question that Barack Obama — the nation’s first African-American president — remains the most important and influential politician in America, regardless of ancestry.
Now, though, the second-most-important black politician in the land might be South Carolina GOP Rep. Tim Scott — chosen Monday by Gov. Nikki Haley to fill the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Sen. Jim DeMint, who’s stepping down in January to become president of the Heritage Foundation.
In the short run, at least, Scott could have more influence than anyone else in finding out whether there’s a broader market for a Tea Party-friendly philosophy among black voters — who voted overwhelmingly for Obama — and if Republicans have a genuine interest in expanding their tent to include voters of color.
If Scott takes on that task and succeeds, he could change the political landscape. If not, his move to the upper chamber might wind up being seen as political window dressing.
Because after the GOP offered up the almost comically noxious outgoing Florida Rep. Allen West — who once declared that “78 to 81” congressional Democrats were communists; the self-immolating pizza mogul Herman Cain; and the charismatic but ideologically undefined former party chair Michael Steele, Scott’s elevation from House to Senate marks Republicans’ first serious Obama-era attempt to put a hard-right black politician in statewide office and front and center as a credible black conservative alternative to the centrist politics of Obama.
The challenge, though, is that Scott has built his political brand in part by staying clear of that broader debate — heightened over the last four years — over the reasons that 9 in 10 black voters and 3 out of 4 Latino and Asian-American voters favor Democrats.
It’s an approach that’s been part of his appeal to voters in his district. And it’s in keeping with his status as the only black member of Congress who’s not part of the Congressional Black Caucus — which fits with Martin Luther King Jr.’s not “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” refrain — long since appropriated as a mantra by black conservatives.