In S.C. twist, black candidate is expected to beat Thurmond's son in House race

June 22, 2010

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — The word many use to describe it is “irony.” Here in South Carolina’s coastal 1st Congressional District, an African American “tea party” conservative is running against the son of onetime segregationist Strom Thurmond in Tuesday’s Republican primary runoff. And he is expected to win.

Paul Thurmond, the youngest child of the most popular politician in South Carolina history, would seem an easy choice in a state where Republicans still revere the former governor and senator. But the national GOP — hoping to elect its first black congressman since J.C. Watts (Okla.) left office in 2003 — has thrown its support (and cash) behind Thurmond’s opponent, state legislator Tim Scott.

“Tim Scott deeply believes in what makes America and certainly South Carolina great — faith, family and freedom,” said former Arkansas governor and presidential contender Mike Huckabee, who on Friday became the latest national figure to throw his support behind Scott. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin jumped in the next day. And although the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) is officially neutral in the race, two of its top leaders, Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), have given money to Scott’s campaign.

After placing first in the primary two weeks ago with 31 percent of the vote (not enough for an outright win), Scott faces a runoff with Thurmond, a member of the Charleston County Council.

The elder Thurmond, who died in 2003 at age 100 (he was 73 when Paul was born), is best known for his nearly 50 years of service in the Senate, his unsuccessful 1948 presidential bid on the segregationist “Dixiecrat” ticket and the discovery, after his death, that at age 22 he had fathered a child with his family’s African American maid.

Thurmond was a legendary politician. For decades, he made a point of trying to call every bride in South Carolina to offer his congratulations. Schools and buildings statewide bear his name. When Scott began to draw support, few people believed a black man could win in South Carolina against an opponent named Thurmond.

It’s not a question that’s discussed much now in the solidly Republican 1st District, a skinny 200-mile stretch of low country where the five-term incumbent, Henry Brown, is retiring. In Charleston, the candidates are talking about the best way to pay for big projects such as dredging the city’s harbor. In Myrtle Beach, it is about building Interstate 73 to boost tourism.

But many Republican activists resent the national GOP’s involvement in the race, even though Scott — who says he would oppose all tax increases and earmarks — has positioned himself as the more conservative candidate.

“The RNC is so hyped up to have the first African American in however many years,” said Janet Spencer, a founder of the Carolina Patriots, a tea party group based in Myrtle Beach. “We don’t have anything against minorities, we just don’t think he is the best fit.”

National Republicans have invested heavily in promoting a diverse slate of candidates for House races this year. Michael S. Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, notes in speeches that the party recruited 32 African Americans for public office, more than ever.

The effort has not had much success. Most of the Republican candidates have lost their primaries or have been given little chance of winning. That helps explain the GOP’s enthusiasm for Scott; he is the only black Republican expected to win, and one of just two or three given any chance at all.

“Everyone recognizes the importance of making sure that we have a party that is representative of Americans from all walks of life, whether it be race or gender or occupation or geography or ideology,” said NRCC spokesman Andy Sere. “We are proud of the diverse group of recruits that we assembled to take back the House.”

But Scott is popular among Republicans in Charleston, where he served on the County Council for 13 years and which boasts more voters than the Myrtle Beach area to the north. Scott’s recent endorsement by the Charleston newspaper doesn’t hurt.

And with Nikki Haley, a first-generation Indian American, on the runoff ballot for governor, Scott may not be the only candidate to break the South Carolina mold next week.

Despite the GOP’s enthusiasm for Scott, the younger Thurmond is not without support; he is popular in Myrtle Beach, and five of the seven candidates who did not survive the runoff are backing him.

Thurmond has tried to get out ahead by appealing to local business owners in old-fashioned Thurmond style: He promises that that as a congressman, he would bring home federal money. At a debate Thursday at the Grand Dunes resort in Myrtle Beach, pork-barrel spending dominated the discussion. Scott stuck to the view that has made him so popular among national conservative groups such as the Club for Growth. He said that the system of earmarks is “corrupt” and that it “bloats our federal spending.”

Thurmond, meanwhile, took a different approach. “I-73 has been funded by earmarks,” he said. “It is an important project. I’m not willing to say I’m not going to take congressionally directed funding.”

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