Politics & Government

Has South Carolina GOP put ugly racial politics behind it?

Rep. Nikki Haley took the majority of the GOP vote in the gubernatorial primary in South Carolina.
Rep. Nikki Haley took the majority of the GOP vote in the gubernatorial primary in South Carolina. Rich Glickstein/The State/MCT

South Carolina Republicans took a large step Tuesday toward ditching the caricature as the party of Old White Men and the divisive campaign tactics of Lee Atwater, choosing Indian-American and African-American nominees for governor and U.S. House.

Aided by an influx of newly active Tea Party voters more concerned with fiscal issues than race, creed or gender, Lexington state Rep. Nikki Haley won the Republicans' gubernatorial nomination despite the use of an ethnicslur against her and doubts about the authenticity of her conversion to Christianity. On the coast, state Rep. Tim Scott defeated the son of longtime U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, who created the Dixiecrat Party. Scott could become the first black Republican to serve in the U.S. House in eight years.

Voters and observers said Tuesday's runoff results could do much to erase the state's image as the place where campaigns go to wallow in the muck. This is no longer your father's S.C. GOP.

"It speaks volumes for the state and for the voters," said Glenn McCall, the only African-American among 100 Republican National Committeemen. "If you can inspire people and you're motivated and can motivate voters, people reward those kinds of candidates.

"Those bedrock principles that we had judged candidates on in the past are changing."

The state's history of campaigns attempting to exploit fears over race or religion is well-known:

_ In 1978's 4th District U.S. House race, Democrats accused Carroll Campbell's campaign of hiring an anti-Semitic third-party candidate to attack Max Heller, Greenville's Jewish mayor.

_ During the GOP presidential primary in 2000, a whisper campaign falsely alleged U.S. Sen. John McCain had fathered a black child out of wedlock. George W. Bush won the primary, and eventually the election.

_ In 1990, consultant Rod Shealy hired a black fisherman to run for the U.S. House in an attempt to increase Lowcountry turnout for his sister's campaign for lieutenant governor. Shealy pleaded guilty to failing to report a campaign contribution and paid a $500 fine.

But according to surveys and interviews, the Tea Party activists who are the most motivated to vote are less concerned with those issues.

According to data compiled by the Sam Adams Alliance in Chicago, 47 percent of those surveyed said they were "uninvolved" or "rarely involved" with politics prior to 2009. A Rasmussen Reports survey of June 8 S.C. GOP primary voters found 39 percent considered themselves part of the Tea Party movement.

Those activists think the new voices are changing the Palmetto State's political debate.

"I've not heard anyone say we should vote for her because she's a woman or because she's a minority," said Cory Norris, a Haley supporter who is also an organizer of the Columbia Tea Party group. "She's just the right person for the job.

Read more of this story at TheState.com

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