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Scott-Thurmond runoff more than irony

By Hastings Wyman
Southern Political Report

June 15, 2010

The most immediate reaction most folks have to the Republican congressional runoff in South Carolina’s 1st District (Charleston, etc.) is the obvious irony: The son of the late Strom Thurmond, Mr. States Rights himself, vs. the first black Republican in the South Carolina House of Representatives since Reconstruction. While that’s surely worth noticing, on closer examination, it is only part of what’s going on in the competitive contest now underway in the Palmetto State’s low country GOP.  

Tim Scott, an African-American up-by-his-bootstraps businessman (insurance and real estate), makes a point of saying that race has little to do with this contest, and he is – for the most part – probably right. In the first primary on June 8, Scott finished with 32 percent to Thurmond’s 16 percent, a two-to-one lead. While no firm figures are available, it is not likely that many black voters, almost all of whom are Democrats, participated in the Republican Primary. Among white voters, Thurmond ran best among rural white voters, according to Citadel political scientist Scott Buchanan, who has been studying the returns precinct by precinct. “The more rural the precinct, the better Thurmond did,” says Buchanan. This may reflect greater affection for Thurmond’s father, and perhaps some racial prejudice, although there is no other evidence of this.  

Scott ran strong in Charleston County, even winning most of the precincts that Thurmond represented on the County Council. Buchanan, notes that the area has “lots of Yankee transplants,” many of whom aren’t that familiar with the late Strom Thurmond, or even if they are, “don’t have good connotations” with the name of the one-time segregationist.  

The two contenders, well aware of the racial feelings that may lie under the surface, have gone out of their way to conduct high-road campaigns. “They’re trying to out-polite each other,” says Buchanan, “being extraordinarily cordial to one another.” 

There are some differences between the two men, though none seem substantial. Thurmond is the more conservative of the two, says one Thurmond partisan and experienced observer of Charleston politics. He cites some practices on the Charleston County Council, such as each member selecting a favorite charity to receive a contribution from county funds, which Scott participated in during his tenure on the Council. This observer believes that the strong support Scott is getting from some conservative groups, such as the Club for Growth, is motivated almost entirely by a desire to have an African-American Republican serving in Congress, thus helping the GOP’s national image, rather than by a careful comparison of the two candidates’ records. Scott’s website, however, notes that he never voted to raise taxes while on the County Council nor in the legislature.  

Scott partisans believe their candidate represents much that is great about this nation. He grew up in deprived circumstances, started working at a low-level job at Chick-fil-A, a fast-food chicken restaurant, where he was mentored by a manager who encouraged Scott to get a football scholarship. He eventually went into business for himself and later entered politics, serving as a member, then chairman, of the Charleston County Council, and later was elected to the state legislature. As a Republican most of his support has come from whites, but he has managed at times to win an estimated 15 percent to 20 percent of the black vote, high for a GOPer in South Carolina. 

Those who know Thurmond, including some Democrats, give him high marks for being an able, likeable and down-to-earth public servant, complete with the conservative views that have usually prevailed in this district. 

Scott is probably the favorite in the June 22 runoff, but not a lead-pipe cinch. Immediately after Scott came in first on June 8, four of the also-rans, including Carroll Campbell, III, who came in third, endorsed Thurmond. Some say they were angry with Scott for dropping out of the contest for lieutenant governor and entering the congressional race instead. Others say their motives were “multi-faceted,” probably involving in part a personal connection with Thurmond.  

Scott’s internal polls show him with a 20-point lead. One Thurmond partisan, however, suspects those are “push-polls.” Scott probably has more money, much more money say some sources, although Thurmond may have raised significant cash in the last week. Much, of course, will depend on turn-out. Fewer voters are expected to come out for the runoff, in spite of the gubernatorial contest between Nikki Haley and Gresham Barrett at the top of the Republican ticket. Whether more of Scott’s or Thurmond’s supporters decide to brave the summer heat on June 22 remains to be seen. 

Either Scott or Thurmond will be a prohibitive favorite in November, given the extreme weakness of the Democratic nominee. Though it has gotten little attention, the victory of perennial candidate Ben Frasier in the 1st District congressional Democratic Primary mirrored that of Alvin Greene in the Democrats’ US Senate primary. Frasier, a former staff-member – his driver, says one source – of the late US Rep. Mendel Rivers (D-SC), had run for public office 17 times before his June 8 primary victory of 56 percent to 44 percent for Air Force veteran Robert Burton, who was the local Democratic establishment’s choice.  

Waring Howe, a longtime Democratic activist and past Democratic National Committeeman, notes that in the 24 years he has been active in his party’s politics, “I met Ben Frasier once.” He remembers that Frasier, who divides his time between homes in Maryland and South Carolina, showed him a photograph of Rivers with his staff in which Frasier was included. As for Burton, “He would have had a chance,” acknowledges a Charleston GOPer. Indeed, in 2008 – albeit a Democratic year – Democratic philanthropist Linda Ketner received 48 percent in her challenge of Congressman Henry Brown (R), who is retiring at the end of his current term.



Burton, however, like Vic Rawls in the Senate race, was saving his fire for November on the assumption that Frasier presented no serious competition. The result – similar to what happened in the Senate primary – was that black voters, who may have made up as much as 60 percent of the Democratic turnout statewide, and probably in the 1st District as well, had nothing to go on but race. That, at least, is one explanation for Frasier’s – as well Greene’s – primary victory.



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