Republicans praised fellow conservative Rep. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who will fill the Senate seat opening next year with the resignation of tea party favorite Jim DeMint. They also downplayed the fact that Scott will become the first African-American GOP senator in more than 30 years.
“Congressman Scott earned this seat; he earned this seat for the person that he is; he earned this seat for the results he has shown; he earned this seat for what I know he is going to do in making South Carolina and our country proud,” GOP Gov. Nikki R. Haley said, adding that it was “very important to me, as a minority female,” to underscore the point.
Haley is a first-generation Indian-American and only the second governor to be of Indian ancestry.
Her comments came at a news conference in the state Capitol, where she announced her decision to name Scott as DeMint’s temporary replacement. Though re-elected to a second term in 2010, DeMint is stepping down effective Jan. 1 to run The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Scott is expected to be sworn in to the Senate when the new Congress convenes Jan. 3. He will run in a November 2014 special election to fill out the remainder of DeMint’s term, which runs through 2016.
While Haley acknowledged “we made history today,” she was quick to explain that the message of the Republican Party is more important than the messenger.
“You are going to see the U.S. Senate become stronger because of the results of Tim Scott, not because of what he looks like,” Haley said. Scott’s appointment comes right after Republicans struggled in the 2012 general election to win over minority voters. President Barack Obama won re-election with more than 90 percent of the African-American vote and more than 70 percent of the Latino vote.
Republicans are trying to overcome the image that they are a party of predominately white males; of the 20 women who will serve in the Senate next year, only three are Republicans.
Scott will be the Senate’s only African-American member and the first black Republican since Edward Brooke, who represented Massachusetts from 1967 to 1979. The most recent African-American to serve in the Senate was Roland W. Burris, a Democrat from Illinois appointed by then-Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich to fill the seat of Obama.
Scott also downplayed the historical significance, focusing instead on his conservative principles.
“America is still a center-right nation,” he said. “The fact is, the better we get at marketing our message, the more it will resonate. I think fresh faces and authenticity goes a long way in the political process.”
Most other Republican senators also steered clear of the superlative aspect of Scott’s ascension to the Senate.
South Dakota Sen. John Thune, chairman of the Republican Conference, said, “Now more than ever, we need lawmakers that will pursue policies that create jobs and spur economic growth, and I’m confident that Tim will be a strong partner as we pursue these goals in the coming weeks and months.”
But in a nod to the significance of Scott’s appointment, South Carolina’s senior senator, Lindsey Graham, noted the state’s troubled history with race and its role as the first state to secede from the Union, triggering the Civil War.
“If these walls could talk, what would they say?” Graham said at the news conference. “Just think of the conversations that have happened in this building during the history of our state. I can’t help but say the obvious: Yes, you did earn everything that comes your way, Tim. But this is a day that has been long in the making in South Carolina.”
Before his selection, most state Republican operatives had said Scott was the smartest choice for Haley. Her own 2014 re-election is no sure bet, and she will now share the ballot with Scott and Graham. Scott was widely viewed as the appointee who could best aid her with re-election.
DeMint also spoke at the news conference, which was noteworthy for how much praise DeMint, Scott and Haley heaped on Graham.
Joel Sawyer, a consultant at South Carolina-based Donehue Direct, said Graham is now the most vulnerable to a primary challenge from the right.
“I don’t view this as great news for Lindsey, and the reason being is because Tim Scott is someone who’s very difficult to beat in a primary,” Sawyer said. “If you’re an ambitious Republican looking at primarying the governor, Graham or Scott, the path of least resistance is going to probably be Graham.”