If South Carolina state Rep. Tim Scott can hang on against Charleston County Councilman Paul Thurmond in today’s 1st district runoff, he will be virtually assured of becoming the first black Republican to serve in Congress since Rep. J.C. Watts (Okla.) left in 2002.
A Scott victory over Thurmond in the heavily Republican 1st district would be particularly significant as far as historical coincidences go because Thurmond is the son of legendary South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond (R), who set a Senate record in 1957 by conducting a 24-hour filibuster to block a civil rights bill in order to preserve segregation.
Dylan Glenn, a former Bush administration appointee who is black and ran for Congress in Georgia several times, said the runoff is a choice between two well-qualified candidates but also an opportunity for the Republican Party to begin “projecting a face of the party that looks more like America as a whole.”
“My party should have people that look like me, not just people who think like me,” he said.
Watts said Scott would be a voice in the GOP Conference that “understands that we are a multicultural society. If you don’t understand the culture, people aren’t going to hear you on taxes or education or a whole host of things.”
But despite the excitement in some Republican circles, Scott, who is the first black Republican to serve in the South Carolina Legislature since Reconstruction, goes out of his way to avoid talking about the racial implications of his election.
“This is an issue-oriented campaign. In order for us to win back America, we better be right on the issues,” Scott said.
Scott pointed out that he has yet to meet Watts (although the two tried unsuccessfully to meet up when Scott was in Washington, D.C., earlier this year.)
“I’m trying my very best to meet voters in my district,” Scott said. Watts “doesn’t live in the district.”
Scott said all the hype over what his victory might mean is little more than “political theater.”
“The question really is, will I represent the future of America? My goal is do so and to do so not by what you look like, but to do so by what you stand on,” Scott said.
Scott came in first in the nine-way primary in the 1st district on June 8 by taking 31 percent. Thurmond was 15 points behind him with 16 percent of the vote.
Since then, Thurmond has been endorsed by four of the primary candidates, including third-place finisher Carroll Campbell III, the son of a former governor.
There’s certainly some precedent for the second-place finisher in the primary winning the runoff. In 1994, Mark Sanford (R) finished 12 points behind former state GOP Chairman Van Hipp, but after securing endorsements from all but one of the Republicans who were eliminated in the primary, he went on to win the runoff.
Still, one South Carolina GOP consultant said he hasn’t seen a major shift in momentum since Scott cruised to first place in the primary.
Scott has earned support from several national GOP figures, including House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) and National Republican Congressional Committee Vice Chairman Kevin McCarthy (Calif.). Over the weekend, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin also announced she is backing Scott.
Among those who are also pulling for Scott is Tim Johnson, who works with the North Carolina Republican Party and also serves as chairman of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, an organization that promotes black Republican candidates.
Johnson said that a victory by Scott would certainly be significant but that he’s also hoping for larger gains this fall after a cycle that has seen so much excitement in black Republican circles.
“One is not something we’ll be jumping up and down about … in a year where we’ve had over 40 blacks running for federal office,” Johnson said. He added that he’s hoping to see at least three to five black Republicans win this fall.
Watts said that those black Republican candidates who have the best chance of winning are the ones who, like Scott, have created a political foundation at home.
But, he said, “that doesn’t excuse the party to make sure you’re doing things to make sure you’re establishing a deeper relationship with the black community. I continue to question” how well the national party has done in that effort.
Elsewhere in South Carolina, two other runoffs will all but decide the next Members in the 3rd and 4th districts.
In the 4th district, Rep. Bob Inglis (R) is up against Spartanburg County Solicitor Trey Gowdy. Gowdy beat Inglis by 12 points on the initial primary ballot, and most observers expect him to finish the job today.
In the 3rd district, state Rep. Jeff Duncan (R) is the favorite against tea party and anti-abortion activist Richard Cash.
Meanwhile, North Carolina will hold its Senate runoff today to decide who will take on Sen. Richard Burr (R) in the fall.
North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall (D) came in first in the May 4 primary and went on to earn the endorsement of Chapel Hill attorney Ken Lewis, the third-place finisher. She appears to have a slight edge over former state Sen. Cal Cunningham (D), but turnout is expected to be very low and the race could go either way. Burr will be favored in the fall no matter whom Democrats choose.
In Utah, Republicans will pick their Senate nominee today. After Sen. Bob Bennett was defeated in the state GOP convention, the contest has come down to a close fight between attorney Mike Lee and businessman Tim Bridgewater. Polling has been all over the map in that contest.
Also in Utah, Rep. Jim Matheson (D) is facing his first primary since being elected to Congress, though he shouldn’t have too much trouble against retired teacher Claudia Wright.