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Are Republicans ready to vote for someone who looks like Tim Scott?

A new contender has emerged in the Republican presidential race – the first African American to be elected to the Senate from the South since 1881

Badges for sale prior to an event for senator Tim Scott on May 22 in North Charleston, South Carolina. Photo: Allison Joyce/Getty

Timothy Eugene Scott, the junior senator from South Carolina, won’t look like many – or any – of the other Republicans challenging Donald Trump for the party’s presidential nomination. Scott is one of only 11 African Americans to have ever served in the congress of the United States, and the first to have also served in the lower chamber as well.

He is only the seventh African American elected to the Senate; the fourth from the Republicans; the first from South Carolina. And he is the first African American to be elected from the South since 1881, four years after the end of reconstruction, and the first to serve in the Senate since 1979.

Scott’s story is an American classic: After his parents divorced and he was brought up by his hard-working single mother in working-class poverty, he graduated from university and worked in financial services before entering politics.

Nowadays, we tend to consider African Americans and the Republicans as some sort of anomaly, something strange, an aberration. But before the great depression and FDR’s new deal, any gathering of black Americans would have been assumed to be a Republican one too, as a matter of course. The Republican Party was the party of Abraham Lincoln; the party of emancipation and reconstruction.

Meanwhile, southern Democrats were linked with the Ku Klux Klan, living in the spirit and the law of the fierce rollback of reconstruction which kept black people off the voter rolls in the South for almost a century until the 1960s.

At one point, the Republicans were the party of Martin Luther King’s father; of Frederick Douglass, the writer and traveller and great champion of the rights of black people; and of Sammy Davis Jr.

I mention Sammy because I can still see him on TV, palling around with Richard Nixon back in the day. This even after Nixon had implemented what was called his “southern strategy”, a drive to migrate segregationist southern Democrats – the “Dixiecrats” – into the Republican Party. Where they reside to this day.

Tim Scott, born in 1965, would have been a baby throughout this change.
He is a solid conservative. He has co-sponsored a bill that would deny food stamps to a family in which a member had participated in a labour strike. He is a so-called pro-lifer who is against same-sex marriage. He opposes a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants and insists that every immigrant who does get in must learn English as a requirement. He opposes the Paris climate agreement and is a supporter of gas and oil interests.

Yet he also got Trump to delete his tweets in support of the racist Charlottesville march and his negative comments following the police murder of George Floyd.

So Scott is pretty normal for a Republican. He has also raised a great deal of money; and there are those who rally behind his personal story: the rise of a poor black boy, living in the South and being successfully raised by his single mother.

Polling shows that more and more young black and Latino men are attracted to the Republican Party, partly because the Democrats are seen by some to have taken African Americans and Hispanics for granted for years.

But it is also this: Trump has branded the Republican Party as the home of toxic masculinity. Men of colour are traditionally denied this twisted agency by racism.

They are assumed, by some white liberals, to not be sexist. To have been unshackled from this by experiencing the greater force of racism. Yet Trump knows that this sexism among some men of colour does exist, and he extends a helping hand, a kind of haven for guys who admire the “grab them by the pussy” approach.

To the men of colour who like him, the Donald’s general chest-thumping and denigration of opponents is the only real response in a world dominated by women and liberals.

The conundrum for Tim Scott is this: what is his retail offer?

He was given a marquee speaking slot at the Republican convention in 2020 and was chosen to deliver the party’s response to President Biden’s state of the union address in 2021. He’s raised over $20m and is an upbeat performer, too.

But Ron DeSantis has beaten him to become the king of woke hate, and there are other problems. People don’t actually know who Scott is, and his optimism is the opposite of the GOP’s hell-in-a-handcart playbook.

Black Republicans traditionally struggle for acceptance in their own party. They have to constantly prove their conservative bona fides. This disbelief is heightened by Trump, who uses racial animus to activate the base.

If Trump tries that, then how will Scott reach out to solid Republican voters to tell them Trump’s racism is not OK? Will any of them listen?

Going on Fox News can help him. The broadcaster made DeSantis and helped win him the governorship of Florida. Scott will also focus on campaigning in the Republican caucus early next year in Iowa, the state that put Obama on the map. And he will just keep on meeting and greeting people.

Above all, unlike Trump and DeSantis, Tim Scott is genuinely liked by people. Which might help him bypass those in his party who do not see its racism as a problem, and who need reassurance that their America will not vanish.

Whether Republicans are at the point of having a Tim Scott as their standard bearer is debatable. But that he is even on the field, that he feels optimistic about his chances, might be a gamechanger in itself.

Like both DeSantis and fellow challenger Nikki Hailey, Scott asks fellow Republicans one question; “Aren’t you tired of losing?”

The best thing to do in regard to Tim Scott: just don’t count the guy out yet.

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