Black Republican Claims Victory In South Carolina Primary

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Only four black Republicans have served in the history of the U.S. Congress. One more might soon be added to the roster. South Carolina's first black Republican state legislator, Tim Scott, won his face off with the son of late Sen. Strom Thurmond in Tuesday’s Republican primary runoff for an open House seat. Winthrop University political science professor Adolphus Belk joins guest host Tony Cox to talk about the results.

TONY COX, host:

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

The face of the southern Republican Party has long been white and male, but that's changing. We'll talk today about the historic runoff results in South Carolina, as well as a national move by Indian Americans to seek political office, many for the Grand Old Party.

Later, we'll go to Jamaica to hear about the arrest of Christopher Coke. Dozens of lives have been lost since the Jamaican government started a full scale effort to arrest Coke in order to extradite him to the United States on drug and gun trafficking charges.

First, though, in South Carolina on Tuesday, two closely watched elections came to dramatic conclusions, both with victories for candidates of color. Indian American Nikki Haley became the Republican Party's candidate for governor. If she wins the general election in November, she would be the first female and the first person of color to become the governor of South Carolina.

And Tim Scott, an African-American Republican, beat out the son of longtime segregationist Strom Thurmond to become the party's candidate for an open congressional seat.

State Representative TIM SCOTT (Republican, South Carolina): The backbone of our future isn't a politician. It's not Tim Scott, it's people who go to work every single day to feed their family. Let's make no mistakes about it. This election is about our future as a country. And I want to reclaim it.

(Soundbite of applause)

COX: If he wins the general election, he would be the only African-American Republican in the 435-member U.S. House of Representatives. And he would be only the fourth black Republican elected to a House seat in the history of the U.S. Congress.

Adolphus Belk is an associate professor of political science and African-American studies at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. He spoke with us earlier about the run up to this race and he joins us again now. Dr. Belk, welcome back.

Dr. ADOLPHUS BELK (Political Science, Winthrop University): Thank you for having me.

COX: Traditionally, South Carolina has been a Republican stronghold, but these are not traditional Republican candidates, are they?

Dr. BELK: They're not in terms of some of the descriptives when you look at an African-American man and Indian-American woman. But when you listen to their messages, they do fall inside the general Republican ideal small government, greater energy on the part of the private sector, this idea that government cannot solve your problems, but is oftentimes the problem itself. So in those ways, they do resemble the standard bearers of the Republican Party.

COX: Tell me about the supporters of these two candidates. Are we seeing diversity, for example, reflected in their voting and donor basis?

Dr. BELK: Well, you can't get this far without having the backings of some very important people. In the case of State Representative Scott, he was endorsed early on by some big names within the Republican Party. So someone like Mike Huckabee was behind him. He received some financial support from the minority whip, Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia.

In the instance of State Representative Haley, the endorsement that probably did the most for her campaign came not from Mike Huckabee who or Mit Romney, rather who supported her, but really, from former Alaska governor, Sarah Palin.

COX: Now, the Tea Party has also been actively involved in both of these campaigns, which in some senses would stretch one's imagination in terms of what the Tea Party has been espoused to be about and what these candidates seem to have represented.

Dr. BELK: The Tea Party should not be viewed as some sort of cohesive movement with a clear message and platform. The Tea Party, you know, taxed enough already, they represent a wide variety of interests that are competing for ascendency within that movement. Someone like Tim Scott wasn't necessarily a darling of the Tea Party, though he has talked about issues that they've identified in terms of government bloat and too much government spending.

Nikki Haley was someone who was embraced by the Tea Party folk, as evidenced with the backing of Sarah Palin.

COX: The Republican Party nationwide, Dr. Belk, has been trying to diversify and change its image to a place that is friendlier to people of color. Is it doing that effectively, in your view, and is whether or not Scott or Haley win in the general election, will that change anything?

Dr. BELK: Those efforts have been pretty complex and mixed. So if we think back to someone like Ken Mehlman, when Ken Mehlman was the chair of the Republican National Committee, he went out speaking to groups like the NAACP and the National Urban League. He apologized for the party's use of the southern strategy, a way to inflame racial matters to gain the support of southern whites.

But then all of that was quite literally and figuratively washed away with the colossal failure of government during the Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the Gulf Coast. So there's been this push and pull with Republican efforts to court minority voters. This is something that can help that cause. But I think people are going to watch how these folk are treated by the party.

COX: Final thing, briefly, do you think, then, in following the answer that you just gave, that we are seeing a sea change with respect to the political landscape across the South in particular?

Dr. BELK: I don't know if I call it a sea change, but it's definitely a change. And the thing that must be considered, the nation is growing more diverse, not less so. Most children now are being born to minority women. So if the party is going to remain viable and vibrant, it needs to find a way to connect with folk that it's yet to connect with.

COX: Dr. Belk, thank you very much for coming on.

Dr. BELK: My pleasure.

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