In a city where members of Congress and lobbyists sport “glory walls” adorned with photos of them posing with the high and mighty, the birthday party can be a pretty good barometer of someone’s real status. So who were in attendance when freshman Rep. Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, turned 46 in September? House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
That turnout was impressive, especially because Scott had been giving the leaders fits for months. Three weeks earlier, he had refused to vote to raise the debt ceiling, despite pleas from Boehner and others. Before that, Scott opposed leadership-backed bills to keep the government funded. If anyone represents the intractable, hardheaded ideology of the new Right, it’s Scott. “Yeah, I’m not much of a compromiser,” he said, looking back at the votes without regret.
Hewing to such a hard line was difficult at the time. Scott’s office got so many calls that his staff had to shut down the phone lines twice. Scott is one of only two black Republicans in Congress, and many of the calls were filled with racially charged insults. And the anger didn’t just come from off the Hill. Scott said he received his fair share of cold shoulders in the hallway, and one fellow Republican even reminded him in the bathroom that South Carolina hadn’t yet seceded from the Union.
The intransigence could have gotten another lawmaker shunned or punished. Not Scott. “He is leadership personified,” said Cantor, a featured guest at the party and fundraiser. “He has a lot of magnetism and a lot of charisma. And, obviously, he’s very unique; he’s an African-American Republican and a conservative at that.” Cantor has good reason to stay close to Scott. With minorities comprising a growing share of the voting-age population, the Republican Party can’t afford to rely almost exclusively on support from whites. Unless the GOP attracts more minorities, it will be consigned to second-class status. “If we are going to be successful,” Cantor said, “we need to be a party of inclusion and have a welcome sign out front.”
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As it stands, Republicans have a messaging problem when it comes to reaching black voters, and the 2012 presidential campaign is exacerbating that disconnect. Remember when Newt Gingrich called Barack Obama a “food-stamp” president, or when Rick Santorum said, “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money”?
Former Rep. J.C. Watts, who was also a black Republican in the House, spoke about the need for better messaging at the Conservative Black Forum on Capitol Hill earlier this year. “Somebody that looks like us needs to be at the strategists’ table to say, ‘I know what you’re trying to say, but I wouldn’t say it like that,’ ” Watts said.
In the House, at least, that somebody appears to be Scott.
The former state legislator and insurance salesman is a natural. He holds town-hall audiences in the palm of his hands by drawing from his favorite motivational speakers (whom he listens to in his car, alternating between inspiration and Hootie and the Blowfish) and touting his unyielding conservative ideology. He knows the favorite sports teams of the U.S. Capitol Police officers. He once took the stage to perform a cover of “Don’t Stop Believing” at a Mike Huckabee fundraiser. And he pitched himself out of a jam at the annual congressional baseball game, after walking the bases loaded.
Political observers are already talking up the possibility of Scott’s becoming his state’s junior senator when Republican Jim DeMint’s term expires in 2016. DeMint has said he will not seek another term. A Scott win would be historic: Only one other black Republican (Edward Brooke of Massachusetts) has served in the Senate since 1881.
“He has a lot of magnetism and a lot of charisma. And, obviously, he’s very unique.”—House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, on Tim Scott
Not long ago, Scott went to lunch with three staffers and a reporter. His aides looked around nervously as their boss chatted with a waitress about Madonna’s Super Bowl halftime show. A recent GQ story had described Scott as being a bit flirty with a waitress at a tapas bar, and the staffers were hoping that he wouldn’t do anything embarrassing at this lunch.
Then the waitress made physical contact. “I think you’re hot,” she said, putting her palm on Scott’s freshly shaved head. “I can feel your heat from over here.”
“Most people say I’m hot,” Scott said. “I agree.” One of his aides let out an audible sigh. The waitress left and the staff members looked at one another. But Scott leaned forward and laughed, unconcerned about the reporter’s presence. After all, Scott has been untouchable since he arrived in D.C.
THE IMPACT OF RACE
When asked if his success has anything to do with race, Scott scratched his head, paused, and looked to the ceiling for inspiration. “No, no, not really,” he said. “No. I don’t think they care. I don’t think they care at all. Not much.”
Congressman Tim Scott's speech at the RNC 2012
This article appears in the March 31, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.