WASHINGTON — Rep. Tim Scott likes to say that his political ambitions depend on what God has in store for him.
God may be about to place the likeable South Carolina lawmaker with the broad smile in the United States Senate.
It would be a big move for Scott, who is completing his first term in the House of Representatives, and an even bigger move for a Republican Party desperately seeking diversity.
Scott, a devout Christian who formerly served as a state legislator and county commissioner, already will be the only African-American Republican in the next session of Congress, following the defeat of Florida Rep. Allen West in last month’s elections.
But the possible appointment of Scott by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to replace Sen. Jim DeMint, the firebrand conservative who announced his surprise retirement Thursday, would make the North Charleston, S.C., native just the seventh black senator in U.S. history – among them President Barack Obama from Illinois – and only the fifth since Reconstruction.
There have been three Republican African-Americans in the Senate, but only one – Edward Brooke of Massachusetts – since the post-Civil War era. Scott would be the first from the South since Reconstruction.
Scott’s is one of many names being floated as a possible successor to DeMint, who is leaving to become president of the Heritage Foundation, an influential Washington think tank. DeMint is pushing Haley to name Scott as the senator’s successor.
Tara Wall, an African-American who was a senior media adviser to 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, said Scott’s promotion would be a boon to both their conservative cause and their party.
“It would be a significant nod to conservatism and inclusion,” Wall told McClatchy. “Scott is a very personable, well-respected, highly committed congressman who has been tireless in his advocacy of faith, economic freedom and entrepreneurship. He’d make a fantastic senator.”
Scott’s promotion would make him a major Republican figure overnight, especially in light of many leaders’ focus on broadening the party’s demographic base after Romney’s poor showing last month among Hispanics, blacks, Asians and women.
Since joining Congress almost two years ago, Scott has juggled competing loyalties to the tea party enthusiasts who helped elect him and to House Speaker John Boehner, who chose him as a leader of the large 2010 House Republican freshman class.
Former Republican national chairman Michael Steele, an African-American who met some resistance when he tried to expand the party’s outreach, said the elevation of Scott would be important, but only as a starting point.
“We have a tendency to put every egg in one basket,” Steele told McClatchy. “It would not be a panacea to what the party has to face in terms of race, ethnicity and sexual orientation.”
Haley herself is a symbol of demographic expansion for her state’s Republican Party. As the daughter of Indian Sikh immigrants, she is the first woman and the first ethnic minority member to become governor in South Carolina.
Haley and Scott served together in the state General Assembly before her election as governor and his as U.S. representative in 2010.
Scott, 47, said Friday that he and Haley were on friendly terms but hadn’t spoken since last week, when she met with the South Carolina congressional delegation after addressing the Republican Governors Association.
Asked whether he would be honored to accept an offer from Haley, Scott didn’t deny interest but was noncommittal.
“I think that’s really premature, honestly,” he told McClatchy. “Nikki has a difficult decision to make; she doesn’t really need me weighing in on it through the media. She’ll make it in the interests of South Carolinians and America. I am not going to make any prognosis without having anything to go on besides the prospect of something.”
Scott said he spoke with DeMint on Thursday morning when the senator called the other six Republican members of Congress from South Carolina to tell them he was resigning before making the news public.
Scott, who grew up poor in North Charleston as one of three children of a single mother, responded more carefully when asked whether DeMint had told him he was the senator’s choice to take his seat as junior senator to Sen. Lindsey Graham, also a Republican.
“I don’t recall it being that clear,” Scott said. “We really didn’t spend any meaningful time on who he wanted to replace him.”
Like Obama, Scott doesn’t dwell on race. He sees himself as fulfilling the vision of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for a colorblind society that will focus more on personal character than skin complexion.
As a member of the Charleston County Commission, Scott spoke out strongly against racial profiling by police and backed a measure to restrain it. But after campaigning for bringing the Confederate flag down from atop the South Carolina Statehouse, he voted to kill a resolution demanding its removal.
If Haley chooses Scott to replace DeMint, and he accepts the appointment, the former high school football star would have to run for re-election in 2014.
That prospect might be the ultimate test for Scott’s party: With Mississippi’s two Reconstruction-era senators having been chosen by their state legislature, voters in the South have never elected an African-American to the Senate.
Tom Snyder, a white business executive with Sunpak Logistics in Sumter, S.C., said Scott has earned his support over the past nearly two decades in his county, state and federal government posts.
“I just don’t judge people by the color of their skin,” Snyder said. “I judge them on their vision of leadership and who they are as a person. And I know Tim Scott as a person who has got a great future.”
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