(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.
But as a senator, he'll likely be called upon to be less agnostic on issues of race and more of an ambassador to voters of color from the Republican Party and for a farther-right worldview — almost surely part of the calculus that went into Haley's decision to tap Scott for a Senate seat after just one House term.
To do that effectively, however, he'll have to find overlap between his view that "reducing the tax burden, decreasing government interference in the private sector and restoring fiscal responsibility" — themes that resonate among black, Latino and Asian-American voters — and some of the harsher stances that in recent years have put up a wall between the GOP and the voters it will need to win future national elections.
Like when Scott suggested last year that if Obama opted to sidestep Congress on raising the debt ceiling, he'd consider it "an impeachable act." Or Scott's 2011 proposal to deny food stamp eligibility for union members on strike — stances that fall squarely within today's mainstream conservative thought but are generally nonstarters with black voters.
And ideologically, he'll stand in contrast with the last black GOP senator, Massachusetts' Ed Brooke, who was pro-choice, an advocate of the Fair Housing Act and arguably more liberal than Obama.
It's a contrast that underscores both the rightward drift of Republicans and the flight of black voters from the GOP over four decades.
But it's an opportunity for Scott to start trying to put his stamp on the post-Obama era — if he figures out what Republicans so far haven't: how to pitch staunchly conservative policies to black and Latino voters. And it's an opportunity to see if there's an audience (inside or outside the GOP) to resurrect initiatives like Jack Kemp-style "empowerment zones" or some other type of small-government, free-market agenda in a way that has a meaningful impact on minority communities.
Or, as Jamelle Bouie ponders in Monday's Washington Post, it's an opportunity for Scott to find out that "the same conservatism that drives GOP enthusiasm for figures like Scott also drives actual nonwhites away from the party."
And as any conservative will tell you, all they'll ever ask for is an opportunity.
David Swerdlick is a contributing editor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.