By: Bruce Smith
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — If Tim Scott succeeds in becoming the first black Republican from the Deep South elected to Congress since the 1800s, he would become a celebrity for a national party still struggling to attract diverse voters.
Scott and his supporters say race has nothing to do with his success so far in South Carolina’s 1st District race. The state representative has built his conservative credentials for years, including campaigning for late Sen. Strom Thurmond, and is now tapping into voter anger over changes under President Barack Obama.
“I don’t care if he’s black, green or purple. Everything he says he believes and you believe what he says so color doesn’t matter,” said Carolyn Raines-Harbin, a real estate agent from Myrtle Beach. “He’s probably the most down-to-earth, honest, hardworking person I have ever met.”
The district, once represented by Gov. Mark Sanford, reaches from the sea islands south of Charleston, through the city where the Civil War began and north along the coast to the resort area of Myrtle Beach.
Scott tells voters he wants to rein in federal spending and repeal health care reforms he says will bankrupt the nation. “I can’t pay higher taxes and hire more people,” he regularly tells audiences, referring to his own insurance business.
The message seems to resonate in the mostly conservative district.
“They crammed this health care down our throats. Seventy percent of Americans don’t want it and it’s going to bankrupt small business,” said Jeff Reuer of Summerville, who is retired from the Navy and a tea party activist.
Scott, 45, has the backing of Sarah Palin and Tea Party activists. He faces Democrat Ben Frasier, a perennial candidate who is also black, as well as five third-party candidates on Election Day.
Scott would become the nation’s first black GOP congressman since Oklahoma’s J.C. Watts retired in 2003.
“He would be in big demand around the country from Republican audiences,” said Merle Black, a political scientist from Emory University in Atlanta. “They would welcome his victory in the party because there are so few black Republicans and especially successful black Republicans.”
Doug Heye, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, says there’s no doubt the GOP has a rising star.
“Republicans are very excited about his candidacy,” he said, adding there is the possibility for Scott to play a bigger role on the national stage.
But he added that “while there will be a large clamoring for interviews with him and so forth from national media, everything that he has indicated in his campaign is about representing the district he has.”
Scott has a clear fundraising advantage, having spent almost $725,000 this election cycle while his November opponents combined have spent less than $20,000.
And he already emerged from a heated nine-way primary, defeating the son of a former governor, and, in the runoff, attorney Paul Thurmond, the son of the one-time segregationist.
Scott, when elected to the Legislature in 2008, became the first black Republican lawmaker in South Carolina in more than a century.
Before that, he served 13 years on Charleston County Council and was honorary chairman of one of Strom Thurmond’s senate re-election bids. Raised in poverty in North Charleston, Scott’s single mother, Frances, worked 16 hours a day raising Scott and his brother.
Sending a Black Republican to Congress “really comes down to the evolution of who we are as South Carolinians,” Scott said.
Frasier, a 68-year-old businessman and former aide to the late Democratic U.S. Rep. Mendel Rivers, has run 17 times in 38 years for Congress, but never won the Democratic nomination until this year.
“There’s a burning desire in me to fight for the people of this district and the state of South Carolina,” he says to explain his perseverance. “People are out of work, they are scared and they are angry.”
But Frasier said he’s received scant party support since upsetting retired Air Force Col. Robert Burton in the June primary.
“I’m mad as hell,” Frasier said. “Until the end of last month I really thought about getting out. But we’re not going to give them the satisfaction of Ben Frasier dropping out.”