For all the progress in U.S. race relations since Martin Luther King Jr. kicked the civil rights movement into gear in the late 1950s — changes underscored by Barack Obama’s presidency — the paucity of black Senate members stands out like an eyesore. And that adds extra intrigue to the surprise announcement today by Sen. Jim DeMint that he will be quitting Congress’ upper chamber to head the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Could South Carolina – the first state to leave the Union in defense of slavery and the place where the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter started the Civil War– find that DeMint is replaced by a black man? And, to boot, by a Republican — a party that exit polls showed winning all of 6 percent of the African-American vote in last month’s presidential election?
Yes, it could happen. Much of the chatter about who Gov. Nikki Haley — herself a Republican of Indian origin – will name to take DeMint’s seat has centered on Rep. Tim Scott, currently one of two black Republicans in the House.
The State, South Carolina’s leading newspaper, reports that “immediate speculation turned to” Scott as DeMint’s successor. The story notes that Scott, “like DeMint, is a Tea Party favorite.”
The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, in his blog, quotes South Carolina Republican strategist Wesley Donehue as saying “the only way” Haley doesn’t select Scott “is if she picks herself.” Donehue adds that the appointment of Scott “makes all the sense in the world.”
Influential conservative voices touting Scott include Erick Erickson, managing editor of the RedState.com blog site. In a post today extolling the benefits of DeMint’s move to Heritage, he writes that “about the only thing that could make this more awesome is if”’ Haley names Scott to fill the Senate vacancy.
Erickson also notes one of the many unmistakable ironies that would surround that pick — Scott’s district includes Fort Sumter.
Here’s another: To first win his House seat in 2010, Scott won a runoff for the Republican nomination against Paul Thurmond. That would be the son of Strom Thurmond, the longtime South Carolina politician who ran for president in 1948 as a segregationist candidate on the States Rights Democratic Party ticket.
Scott, 47, would be only the fifth black to serve in the Senate since the Reconstruction period that followed the Civil War. The first was Ed Brooke of Massachusetts, a Republican moderate — once they weren’t that rare — elected in 1968. He lost a third-term bid in 1978, and the Senate then went 14 years before another black — Democrat Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois — joined its ranks following the 1992 election.
After Moseley Braun lost her re-election bid in 1998, six more years elapsed before Illinois voters again filled the racial void by sending a black to the Senate — Obama. Upon his 2008 White House win he was replaced by Roland Burris, another African-American Democrat. Burris served out the remaining two years of Obama’s term and didn’t seek election in his own right, in part because his selection was clouded by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s initial efforts to auction off the seat — one of the charges that ultimately landed Blagojevich in prison.
Haley presumably will handle her selection duties more deftly and legally. And if she taps Scott, he would have another distinction: he and South Carolina’s other senator, Republican Lindsey Graham, 47, would form the chamber’s only bachelor duo from a single state.