U.S. Rep. Tim Scott speaks Monday to reporters at the South Carolina Statehouse after being introduced by Governor Nikki Haley to fill the vacant U.S. Senate seat. Photo by Tim Dominick/The State/MCT via Getty Images
When Rep. Tim Scott becomes the newest senator from South Carolina, it will take about five minutes for him to walk from the House side of the U.S. Capitol to the Senate side. On his way, he will pass statues of slave owners and civil rights heroes — somewhat fitting for the man who will be the only African American to caucus with the Grand Old Party in the 113th Congress and the first to ever represent South Carolina in the U.S. Senate.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley did not deliberate long once Republican Senator Jim DeMint told his constituents and fellow lawmakers he would be leaving the Senate to head the conservative Heritage Foundation. Announcing her decision from the statehouse in Columbia, less than two weeks after DeMint submitted his resignation, Haley said her choice was “pretty simple,” referring to Scott as the “right senator for our state and our country” and as a man who “loves South Carolina.”
Scott was born in North Charleston in September of 1965, barely a month after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. South Carolina’s two senators at the time were Strom Thurmond, the long-serving segregationist conservative (he began his career as a Democrat but switched parties in 1964), and Donald Russell. Russell resigned as governor of the state to allow himself to be appointed by his successor, Robert McNair, to fill a vacancy when Olin Johnston died.
The state began its political shift away from the Democratic Party of the Old South in earnest during the time of Johnson’s Great Society. Scott grew up during that movement — the son of a single mother who would work as many as 16 hours a day as a nurse’s assistant, he seemed destined to fall victim to the same cyclical plight of urban poverty that has claimed so many lives across the nation. According to Scott, In high school he impressively managed to fail geography, civics, Spanish and English concurrently. Were he a student at the United States Naval Academy, he would have been a contender to become the anchorman; in Charleston, he was just dead weight.
The turning point came when he met a conservative businessman named John Moniz, a Chick-fil-a franchisee who befriended the teenager. Scott worked at a movie theater next door to one of the restaurants Moniz owned. One day Moniz, who had seen Scott several times eating waffle fries in his restaurant — he usually couldn’t afford more than that — walked next door and offered Scott a chicken sandwich. The two began a relationship that would last “three or four” years during which time Moniz instilled in Scott the conservative principles that would become the roots of the ideology that would carry him from the South Carolina state house to the United States House of Representatives.
“I would think most Americans are members of the tea party principally,” Scott said in a press conference Monday. “If you believe in limited government; if you believe in lower taxes; if you believe in keeping government out of your pockets; if you believe in free markets, those are the basic tenets of the tea party. I hope we all believe in that.”
Riding the tea party wave in 2010, Scott defeated Paul Thurmond, the son of Strom Thurmond, to represent South Carolina’s first congressional district. Before that, Scott spent two years in the South Carolina House of Representatives and 13 more in the Charleston City Council. Working in South Carolina, Scott earned a reputation for being devoutly conservative.
“I have known Tim a long time and I know him to be a rock solid, conservative, Christian Republican,” said Chad Connelly, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. “His walk and his talk match up. When you hear him on the stump, he talks the way he votes.”
Those conservative principles have caused the first-term congressman to clash with House leadership at times. During last year’s debt ceiling negotiations between House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama, Scott made it very clear he would not vote to extend the nation’s borrowing limit – and he didn’t. He has also been a consistent champion for a balanced budget amendment, twice introducing bills to achieve it. The freshman congressman’s legislatively contrarian nature would ordinarily not endear him to party leaders, but Scott enjoys an amiable relationship with both Speaker Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.
Now, Scott moves to the Senate, assuming DeMint’s seat and representing a larger chunk of one of the reddest states in the nation.
“The people of South Carolina are conservative conservatives,” said Dr. Dave Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University. “They are fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, they are even conservative about throwing away their chewing gum.”
For Scott, whose recent candidacy was endorsed by the likes of Club for Growth and former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, conservatism is just as much a part of who he is as his skin color.
“If you want to be a Republican in South Carolina and you are conservative, you are going to be fine,” Woodard said. “These people don’t care if you are black, white or whatever, just as long as you are conservative on the issues, people don’t care.”
In that sense, Scott seems destined for a Thurmond-esque career in the upper chamber, with the state’s senior Senator Lindsey Graham seemingly the more centrist of the two.
When asked at a press conference what his former mentor may think of Scott’s new role, he answered, “I think if John Moniz were here with me today, he would say ‘Tim, don’t forget it’s not about going up in life, it’s about moving forward.”