US & Canada

US Republicans bid to shed 'lily-white' image

Tim Scott standing in front of microphones
Image caption Tim Scott is one of 30 African-Americans running for the Republicans

How does being young, gifted and black square with being a Republican in today's deep south?

The obvious answer might be that it's an awkward fit.

But tell that to Tim Scott.

Voters go the polls in South Carolina on Tuesday in a run-off to decide between two Republicans vying for a seat in Congress in November's mid-term elections.

One of the two, Paul Thurmond, is the son of the state's legendary congressman, senator, presidential candidate and one-time segregationist Strom Thurmond.

The other, Tim Scott, is a charismatic black state legislator from Charleston who, if elected, would be the first black Republican in Congress for almost a decade and the first from his state in more than a century.

Mr Scott, who won most support in the first round of primary voting earlier this month, is one of more than 30 African-American candidates running for the Republican Party as it tries to shake off its image as an almost exclusively white party.

'Race is still everything'

But this is the Deep South and Charleston is the cradle of the civil war. In South Carolina, politics and the colour of your skin are inextricably linked.

"Unfortunately, race is still everything in South Carolina politics," says Dwayne Green, a Charleston lawyer and commentator.

Image caption Paul Thurmond is son of legendary Senator Strom Thurmond

A recent comment by one of the state's senior Republicans about a woman of Indian descent running for governor, Nikki Haley, provided an uncomfortable reminder of the deep divisions that lurk below South Carolina's genteel exterior.

"We already got one raghead in the White House," state Senator Jake Knotts told an online political talk show. "We don't need a raghead in the governor's mansion."

For all the clumsy setbacks, Dwayne Green believes the Republican Party is trying to move on, and that Tim Scott is proof.

"It's very hard to say that you're a party that embraces all races when you have no African-American candidates," he says. "If you have at least one, that's a start."

But it's not just the Republican establishment that seems to have singled out Tim Scott. He also enjoys the backing of committed, conservative Tea Party activists.

And if that sounds surprising for a movement whose members are overwhelmingly white, then members say it is all about the quality of the candidate, not the colour of his skin.

"Tim Scott did a good job. Tim Scott got out and beat the bushes and voted," says Mike Murphree, building contractor and chairman of the Charleston Tea Party, referring to Mr Scott's record as a successful local politician.

"He could have (said) 'I'm the black man and I want you to vote for me because you've never voted for a black man, you bunch of yay-hoos from South Carolina,'" Murphree says. "He sold you on the idea that he has the experience to bring to Washington DC."

Ask the candidate himself how he deals with the issue of race and you get a patient response.

"There seems to be a lot of attention focused on the fact that I'm an African-American and a Republican," Mr Scott tells me. "I get that. Don't get me wrong."

A broader appeal

Just like a certain presidential candidate, two years ago, Mr Scott knows that to win, he has to project a broader appeal.

Image caption Tim Scott says he wants to build the Republican Party on stronger values

"I can only run on, and I can only win on the fact that our issues are important to America," he insists. "If we build our party on stronger values, we will have the diversity we seek. If we try to create a party based on diversity, I actually think that we lose."

This year's bid for more diversity has yet to bear fruit. Several candidates have already been knocked out.

A similar attempt two years ago yielded little.

"We need more like Tim Scott, who has taken years to build that credibility and rapport with the voting population," says Glenn McCall, himself an African-American who represents South Carolina on the Republican Party's National Committee.

"When we recruit African-Americans who really don't have much history with the party and with that constituency, it is a more uphill task."

Mr McCall seems to accept that the pace of political change is slow. But not everyone is so patient.

"The writing on the wall is that the Republican Party will not survive into the future as a lily-white party," says Marvin Rogers, a black author and Republican activist.

"Conservative Republicans need to go into these communities and show that conservatism has many faces. It's not optional. It's a matter of survival."

As he enters the run-off vote, Tim Scott now faces a sterner test in the shape of Paul Thurmond. If Mr Scott wins, he's almost guaranteed a seat in Congress for the heavily Republican 1st District.

And with the seat will come a great deal of attention.

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