Black Republican Could Make History In South Carolina

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Voters in South Carolina head to the polls Tuesday for some big races. Republican African-American State Representative Tim Scott just nabbed the endorsement of Sarah Palin in his runoff with Paul Thurmond, the son of the longtime segregationist the late Senator Strom Thurmond. Should Scott win the runoff tomorrow, and then the general election, he would become the first black Congressman from the Grand Old Party since J.C. Watts left politics in 2002. For more on the runoff elections and Scott’s chances, Guest host Tony Cox speaks with Adophus Belk, Associate professor of Political Science and African American studies at Winthrop University.

TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

We'll touch on some politics, including tomorrow's primary runoffs in South Carolina, as well as the president following the advice of his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, to never let a serious crisis go to waste and use the continuing oil spill to energize the president's clean air agenda. Speaking of the disaster, we'll ask two photographers about the indelible images that touched us all in understanding the effects of the spill.

First, though, politics in South Carolina, beginning with the primary runoff day to remember tomorrow. The governor's race has already garnered attention for name calling and charges of infidelity. But it's a Republican congressional runoff that could lead to a bit of history.

African-American state representative Tim Scott just picked up the endorsement of Sarah Palin in his runoff with Paul Thurmond, the son of the late longtime segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond. Should Scott win the runoff tomorrow and then the general election, he would become the first black congressman from the Grand Old Party since J.C. Watts left office in 2002.

Adophus Belk is an associate professor of political science and African-American studies at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. He joins us now. Welcome to the program.

Professor ADOPHUS BELK (Political Science and African-American Studies, Winthrop University): Thanks for having me.

COX: Let me begin with this. How significant would a Scott victory be to the GOP in South Carolina and nationally?

Prof. BELK: It's important for the national party in general. It's important for South Carolina in particular because you have not had a lot of African-Americans or other racial ethnic minorities in this state rising to elected office in the party. And so the party is desperately trying to put aside some of the images of years gone by of being a party that has been hostile to the interest of racial and ethnic minorities. And so people like Scott are important to try and turn that around.

COX: So, race is not an issue, or it is an issue, or it's not important issue? And how has it played out in the campaign? And talk also about whether whites will and blacks will even vote for someone like a Republican.

Prof. BELK: Race has always been a part of the narrative of South Carolina politics, and in some ways it matters a lot and in some ways it matters a little bit less. What's interesting is that Scott and Thurmond are trying to get away from the dominant narrative, which is an African-American Republican running against the son of the famous Dixiecrat. And they're trying to focus much more in on issues.

But the race has taken a turn where we're seeing a personality clash emerge where Thurmond recently called Scott a career politician pointing to his 15 years in public office or public service. Meanwhile, Thurmond has been called a hypocrite by Scott for saying that he was getting out of politics to spend more time with his family and then getting right back into a congressional race.

COX: One of the questions I have for you is whether or not the anti-incumbent feeling that we are seeing across the country is playing out here and to whose advantage is it?

Prof. BELK: Well, it certainly played out in the sense that we see an incumbent stepping aside creating an open seat. And now that we have this open seat, both persons are trying to cash themselves as people who are capable of moving the district in a different direction.

And so when we look at the results from the primary, Scott won 31.5 percent of the vote compared to Thurmond's 16.3. But now that the field has kind of whittled from nine candidates to two, it's going to be really important to see which of these guys is able to get their people out to the polls.

COX: How does Paul Thurmond handle his campaign? Does he distance himself from his famous father and his politics?

Prof. BELK: I think his road is similar to the road that you would see with other big name candidates whose namesake doesn't necessarily carry the sort of influence that it did with broad segments of the public. So I think that the scion of Strom will rely on the name to help build recognition within the district and to raise money. But when it comes to issues, stand on his own two feet and to carve out his position and try to explain the differences between he and Scott.

COX: Scott did very well in the primary, but is that likely, as some are suggesting, to translate into a victory tomorrow for him?

Prof. BELK: He's in a strong position because he had a 15-point advantage in the first round at a primary and turnout was pretty low. Turnout will probably be lower, so it's going to be really, really important for both candidates to get their people out.

And you mentioned in the lead in that he picked up the endorsement of former Alaska governor, Sarah Palin. And some endorsements matter more than others. And the endorsement of state representative Nikki Haley has been really powerful. So I know Scott is hoping he can capitalize on that.

COX: Now, talking about Nikki Haley and her race against Gresham Barrett for the Republican nomination for governor, a lot of whispering going on in that campaign, having to do with infidelity and now having to do with whether or not Haley is actually a Christian, as opposed to being a practicing Sikh. Talk about the whispering campaigns that are a part of South Carolina politics. They certainly show their head during the presidential campaign.

Prof. BELK: If we back to a year ago, we go back to 10 years ago, there was the famous push poll against John McCain asking, would you vote for him if you knew that he had an illegitimate black child? And the McCains of course adopted a child from Bangladesh. And so that was a very nasty episode in our state's history. And so we've seen some bare knuckle, hard-nosed politics within this state. And we certainly saw it on the Republican side where there were a lot of whispers about Haley's religion, ethnicity, extramarital affairs.

And rather than hurt Haley as a candidate, it seemed that a lot of South Carolina voters rejected that thing this time around and it gained her some support. So, her rise has been pretty incredible considering that coming into the contest, she was a third or fourth place candidate.

COX: Final thing is this. Why is South Carolina politics so quirky, I think is the word that I would use. I'm thinking now about Alvin Greene's victory in the Senate race. Can you explain it?

Prof. BELK: We have a long tradition in this state of one-party dominance where the decisive races have not been the general elections, but the primaries because the opposing party has been pretty weak. So in South Carolina folks have always been competing for the votes of conservatives and the way the conservatives are aligned with the two parties changed as a result of the Civil Rights Movement and other factors.

So if we look at the emergence of someone like Greene and the Democratic Party, the Democrats have some work to do because he wasn't necessarily well vetted. And his opponent in the primary, Vic Rawl, did some things, but didn't do enough to get the sort of name recognition and to get his people out.

Greene has no political resources. He had no money. He had no name recognition. He had absolutely no campaign organization. The only real thing he had was that G comes before R in the alphabet.

COX: Adophus Belk is an associate professor of political science and African-American studies at Winthrop University. He joined us from studios on that Rock Hill, South Carolina campus. Professor Belk, thank you very much.

Prof. BELK: My pleasure, Tony.

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