If you’re looking into clues explaining Sen. Tim Scott’s (R-S.C.) recent revival of blackness, look no further than a recent Winthrop University poll of South Carolina GOP voters.
It’s odd that pollsters would even ask largely white Republican voters in a hard red Southern state how they feel about their black Republican senator’s relationship with his black constituents. But, “fraught with racial complexity” was the response from a voting bloc that’s 95 percent white. When asked if Scott reflected black South Carolinian values, 66 percent said he did. That answer begs several difficult, multifaceted questions, ranging from “Since when did white Southern Republicans care what African Americans think about Republicans?” to “How does Tim Scott feel about that?”
South Carolina Republicans, along with their favorite black native son, might be worried. Long in the pantheon of most reliable conservative states, South Carolina and its crimson red could be shifting into a lighter shade given the demographics. While Republicans easily grabbed the state by 10 percentage points in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, African-American voter share is still a quarter of the Palmetto State electorate—and that slice is more than 90 percent Democrat. More worrisome for Republicans is that black South Carolina voting rates were higher than that of their white and mostly GOP counterparts during the 2012 election.
What else explains Scott’s sudden obsession with being a black senator?
How about this? Two black Democrats, Rick Wade and Joyce Dickerson, are running against each other in their party’s Senate primary, guaranteeing an all-black general election in November. While most observers view Scott as a shoo-in, there are signs he’s not leaving that to chance or the potential mood of energized black voters who haven’t been polled on it yet. There’s so much black political activity in South Carolina these days that it’s even pushing white Republicans to grow a little nervous about it, especially since their voting participation decreased as Team Obama penetrated the state in the past two presidential cycles.
So Scott needed to black-up—quick.
Because it’s not like Scott was putting his black on blast when he was a rising star in the House of Representatives a few years back. In fact, Scott was quite the opposite, a reserved and soft-spoken state legislator who was part of the Tea Party-driven congressional midterm wave that pummeled Democrats in 2010. So pressed was Scott to distance himself from any hint of blackness that he declined standard membership into the predominantly Democratic Congressional Black Caucus. Tactically, that move earned him enormous street cred with a South Carolina 1st Congressional District that is 75 percent white. Strategically, it was a master move, putting him on fast track to the Senate when his mentor, the rabble-rousing and powerful Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), resigned and gave the seat to Scott.
Which is why, several years later, it’s odd to find Scott so loquacious on causes of color. Three years ago he was snubbing the CBC. Three years later, he’s suddenly the gatekeeper of black Senate history. Scott wanted the world to know he was hosting a bipartisan panel of living black U.S. senators to discuss their trailblazing experiences, heavily promoting the event in time for Black History Month. This all seemed so, well, un-Scott of him to do.
Granted, the Senate is a different beast than the much more divisive House. It’s less contentious than its little brother and, at least historically, there’s a bit more deliberative swag in the upper chamber (that’s up for dispute, though). Scott’s sudden unofficial role as godfather of a black Senate fraternal order might seem peculiar to some, but it’s smart to others. Should Oklahoma House Speaker T.W. Shannon (R-Tulsa) manage to upset that state’s GOP primary, there could be two black Republicans to Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) being just the one Democrat in the Senate. The long-term political implications of that for the black community could be significant. But, in the meantime, the sudden color awareness of the Republican Party after celebrating its color blindness for so many generations does strike many as odd.
In the Senate and now faced with the first statewide run of his political career, Scott is—obviously—hoping to keep this gig for the long term. Despite the deep political polarization and redness in the state, it’s still an active hotbed of African-American politicos looking to make their mark. Even when the NAACP head in neighboring North Carolina was slamming the black Republican as a Tea Party “dummy,” there was a novel air to Scott’s quick and forceful response, at least to those of us who’ve watched his remarkably fast political journey.
Given that path, there’s doubt that Scott is so much speaking off the cuff as he is scanning South Carolina’s electoral battlefield. At the very least, Scott wants to ensure the winning margins are wide when he takes his victory lap on Nov. 4.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and frequent contributor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. Follow him on Twitter.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.