Tim Scott’s Run for President Shines a Spotlight on Black Republicans

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., addressed the Charleston County Republican Party at a dinner in February, offering a stirring message of unity and American redemption that has become the center of his stump speech. The next day, he called the chair of the county party to ask for his support.

Scott told the chair that he was considering a presidential run. The chair, who had planned to endorse former President Donald Trump, told the senator he would switch allegiances and back him instead.

The exchange was, in some ways, traditional party politicking as Scott works to build support in his home county and in his home state. But it also underscored a subtle change shaping GOP politics — both men are Black Republicans.

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“I’m pretty locked in helping Sen. Scott in every way that I possibly can,” said the former county party leader, Maurice Washington, who stepped down from his role as chair in April. It was Washington, Charleston County’s first Black Republican chair and a longtime ally of Scott’s, who first encouraged him to run for a county council seat nearly 30 years ago.

Scott, who plans to formally announce his presidential campaign on Monday, will become one of a handful of Black conservatives to run for president in recent years. Herman Cain made a bid for the White House in 2011 and Ben Carson did so in 2016, but neither garnered widespread support. Scott will be the second Black conservative to enter the 2024 race: Larry Elder, a talk radio host who ran unsuccessfully for governor in California’s 2021 recall election, announced his long-shot campaign last month.

As a U.S. senator and a former member of the House of Representatives with roughly $22 million in campaign funds, Scott will begin as more of a contender than most of his predecessors, and he will be one of the best-funded candidates in the 2024 presidential primary. His support is currently in the low single digits, according to public polling. But his candidacy could raise not only his profile, but those of Black conservatives across the country.

Black Republicans are a small group of voters and politicians who say they often feel caught in the middle — ignored and subtly discriminated against by some Republicans, ridiculed and ostracized by many Democrats. Those elected to office have expressed frustration that they are viewed not simply as conservatives but as Black conservatives, and they often decry what they describe as the Democratic obsession with identity politics.

“I think the commonality of virtually all Black conservatives is that we don’t think we’re victims,” said Elder, who has emphasized his roots in both California and the segregated South. “We don’t believe we’re oppressed. We don’t believe that we’re owed anything.” He and Scott share a belief in “hard work and education and self-improvement,” Elder added. “So it would not surprise me that he and I are saying the same things, if not in different ways.”

Other Black Republicans have won state races and primaries since the 2022 midterms. On Tuesday, Daniel Cameron defeated a well-funded opponent in Kentucky’s Republican primary for governor. Cameron, the first Black man to be elected attorney general in Kentucky, is the Trump-endorsed protégé of Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader. Last year, a record number of Black Republican candidates ran for state offices. With Scott in the Senate and four Republicans in the House, there are now five Black Republicans in Congress — the most in more than a century.

Still, the number of Black Republicans who won seats last year is a fraction of the total number who ran for state and local office under the GOP — more than 80. And the Republican Party’s inroads with Black candidates have yet to overcome enduring feelings of distrust among Black voters toward the party. The ascension of Black Republicans such as Scott and Cameron comes against the backdrop of a Republican Party that has largely stood by as some of its members have employed overtly racist rhetoric and behavior.

Shermichael Singleton, a Black Republican strategist and a former senior adviser to Carson, said that he spent a lot of time in 2016 determining how Carson’s hyper-conservative campaign message could remain in step with the party line without alienating critical voting groups. The challenge was twofold: overcoming Black voters’ negative perceptions about Republicans while building a winning coalition that could include some of them.

“It’s just more unique and more challenging if you’re a Black person because of our unique experiences politically and the distrust that most of us have for both parties, but the overwhelming distrust that we have is for Republicans,” Singleton said. “Because they are perceived as being anti-progressive on race.”

Much of the party’s base and its presidential contenders have become focused on opposing all things “woke,” using the term as a catchall pejorative for the broader push for equity and social justice. In the party’s embrace of being anti-woke, several Republican-led state legislatures have aimed to ban books written by Black authors and limit conversations about slavery, the civil rights movement and systemic racism in the classroom and elsewhere.

For many in the Republican Party, its members of color are proof of its inclusivity. The success of a candidate like Scott — the first Black Republican to represent South Carolina in the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction — helps in part to rebut claims that the GOP is inherently racist or, more broadly, that systemic racism remains an issue in America, Republicans say.

In speeches, Scott has criticized the “victim mentality” he believes exists in American culture, and has blamed the left for using racial issues as a means of further dividing the electorate. Elder said racism “has never been a less important factor in American life than today.”

“What Black Republicans have to do is they either have to lean all in and just be an unapologetic, uncritical supporter for where the Republican Party is now, or they have to find a way to walk that tightrope of not alienating the party, but also not alienating their community,” said Leah Wright Rigueur, an associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins University. “Somebody like Scott has to find a space to navigate those worlds.”

J.C. Watts, who was the first Black Republican to represent Oklahoma in Congress, said he believed Scott could be “a great asset” to the party’s presidential primary, based on his personal experiences. “Whether or not the party listens,” he added, “that’s something else.”

“He will have some that will try to force him to be ‘the Black Republican,’” Watts continued. “While I don’t think you should run from being Black, or run from being conservative, some will try to force him to play that role.”

Nathan Brand, Scott’s spokesperson, pointed to the senator’s remarks at the dinner in Charleston in February, in which he acknowledged “the devastation brought upon African Americans” before extolling America as “defined by our redemption” — themes that have formed the base of his campaign message. The campaign declined to comment further.

Like many Black Republicans, Scott has been reluctant to discuss race as it relates to his party, preferring to focus on policy matters. In recent years, however, he has been called on to weigh in further. In 2020, he was the lead Republican in negotiations on failed police reform legislation.

The senator was also a leading conservative voice against Trump’s comments about a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, when the president said there were people to blame on “both sides.” Scott’s criticisms later spurred Trump to invite him to the White House.

After a series of police killings in the summer of 2016, Scott gave a detailed speech on the Senate floor about instances when he was racially profiled by law enforcement, including by U.S. Capitol Police. These were moments, he said, when he “felt the pressure applied by the scales of justice when they are slanted.”

Now, as he becomes a presidential candidate and the nation’s highest-ranking Black Republican, Scott will likely have to answer questions about how he and the rest of his party navigate a tenuous relationship with Black voters.

“It could be a little bit of a problem to me down the road,” said Cornelius Huff, the Republican mayor of Inman, South Carolina, who is Black. “You have to have somebody in the family that calls it what it is and straightens those things out.”

At a recent town hall in New Hampshire, Scott told a mostly white audience of supporters that he saw an opportunity to increase the party’s gains with voters of color, particularly men. Despite winning reelection by more than 25 points in 2022, Scott lost to or narrowly defeated his Democratic challenger in nearly all of South Carolina’s predominantly Black counties. Policy conversations about school choice and economic empowerment, he said, could create an opening with men of color, a group that polling shows has been more open to supporting the Republican Party in recent election cycles.

“When we go where we’re not invited, we have conversations with people who may not vote for us,” Scott said at the event. “We earn their respect. If we earn their respect long enough, we earn their vote. What is disrespectful is to show up 90 days before an election and say, ‘We want your vote.’”

The senator appeared to be speaking to a common grievance among Black voters that Democrats often count on and court their votes before major elections, and then fail to deliver on their policy promises. Yet, even as some Black voters bemoan what they see as Democrats’ empty promises on the issues they care most about, they remain the party’s most loyal constituency. More than 90% of Black voters voted for President Joe Biden in 2020.

Washington, 62, the former Charleston County Republican chair, helped found South Carolina State University’s Republican Club while in school there nearly four decades ago. Although he has run for office as a Democrat before, Washington says his values, and those of many in Black communities, are more conservative and thus more aligned with Republican values. The weeks after Scott starts his campaign will amount to a waiting game, he added.

“Let’s see what happens,” Washington said. “We’ll know sooner rather than later whether or not that message of unity, of working hard towards rebuilding trust in our nation — in America and its citizenry and in its race relations — is going to be one that is embraced or rejected.”

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