Voices: Tim Scott, the newest 2024 Republican candidate, is the most interesting - and most frustrating - Senator
In 2010, Tim Scott beat the son of Senator Strom Thurmond, the racist Dixiecrat-turned-Republican who famously filibustered the Civil Rights Act, in the GOP primary for South Carolina’s 1st district.
Mr Scott was, and is by no means, a moderate and his election was part of the larger Tea Party wave that swept in a slew of conservative rabble-rousers who would change how the House of Representatives would conduct business.
Nevertheless, a Black man winning a Republican primary against the son of a notorious racist seemed to represent a sea change in a state that at the time still flew the Confederate Flag at its Capitol.
Mr Scott won his election the same year that Nikki Haley, an Indian American woman, won the governorship in South Carolina after being subjected to bigoted epithets.
When Republican Jim DeMint (South Carolina) resigned his Senate seat, Ms Haley appointed Mr Scott in 2013. A year later he won a special election, making him the first Black politician in the South in more than a century to win a Senate race.
Ever since then, I’ve watched Mr Scott’s career with great interest. Some liberals, confused by the fact a Black man from the South could be a Republican, have called him an “Uncle Tom”, rather than ask what made him decide to be a Republican instead of a Democrat. (The answer, as he told my friend Tim Alberta for a profile in Politico Magazine was when he decided to run for office, Democrats told him to “get in line” while Republicans said, “You probably won’t win, but heck we’d love to see you run.”)
Mr Scott’s office is one of the most diverse offices I’ve seen, Democrat or Republican. For many years, he employed a Black woman, Jennifer DeCasper, as his chief of staff and she will now run his presidential campaign. He took part in a program to hire people with intellectual disabilities and his office made sure it was accessible for one of his staffers who used a wheelchair.
In a time when even many Democrats still overwhelmingly hire Ivy League graduates or mostly privileged white kids to staff their offices, Mr Scott has made a concerted effort to make his office “look like Heaven,” as one of his aides told me many years ago.
He has also spoken movingly about the threat of white supremacy. He’s recalled how he has been stopped by police seven times in his life and how US Capitol police asked to see his ID even when he wore his Senate pin. Still on many days, as he enters the Senate chamber to vote, he can be seen joking with officers, including Eugene Goodman, the man who deterred the mob of Trump’s supporters as they stormed the Capitol building.
His story as a Black man in the South who made his way out of poverty to the US Senate is incredibly inspiring and it is no wonder that his Republican Senate colleagues love the idea of him running for the White House.
While some Republicans paint an image of “American Carnage,” to borrow a phrase, Mr Scott preaches a form of optimistic conservatism and opportunity to people of colour.
At the same time, Mr Scott has often chosen to focus on partisan attacks rather than confronting the pernicious spectre of white supremacy that flows, not only throughout the US, but also the Republican Party.
Indeed, he has said that “woke supremacy” is as bad as white supremacy. When white supremacists descended upon Charlottesville in 2017 and Mr Trump drew a moral equivalency between the alt-right and “alt-left,” Mr Scott said the then-president’s “moral authority is compromised.”
However after a meeting with Mr Trump, though, he said that the president “obviously reflected” on his comments.
Similarly, even as he chats with the Capitol police officers who kept him and the country safe on Jan 6, Mr Scott refused to convict Mr Trump for inciting the riot.
One might understand why Mr Scott would be uninterested in attacking the former president, who remains incredibly popular with Republican voters.
Mr Scott has the opportunity to present a new message to the GOP with his candidacy and offer an alternative version of Republican policies that both takes racism seriously, and offers Black and brown communities a version of prosperity.
Unfortunately, too often he has chosen to hew to the party line. And that might ultimately compromise him.