On a balmy, overcast October afternoon in South Carolina, Tim Scott, the state’s junior senator and current Republican presidential hopeful, worked his way from the back of the Corner Perk Brunch Cafe to a makeshift stage at the front of the crowded room. He stopped to hug and greet adoring supporters in his path. Mr. Scott, who grew up idolizing professional wrestlers, looked the part of the fan favorite on his way to the ring.
“I am a huge fan of America,” Mr. Scott, 58, the Senate’s only Black Republican, said. “We are the greatest country on God’s green earth.”
He delivered this message to an almost entirely older, white group. But there was a time when Mr. Scott represented the possibility that Republicans could draw a more diverse crowd.
Early in his political career, Mr. Scott stirred excitement among South Carolina’s Republican establishment, which anointed him a rising star who could help broaden the party’s appeal to Black voters. As an at-large member of the Charleston County Council, he set out to test the theory in 1996 by challenging a sitting state senator, a Democrat, in a majority Black district.
But Mr. Scott lost that campaign by 30 percentage points — a “trouncing,” Charleston’s Post and Courier called it.
The lessons of that loss still echo in Mr. Scott’s struggling bid for the Republican nomination for president. Mr. Scott often speaks about race and America on the campaign trail, but he has honed a message of opportunity and resilience, while downplaying the role racism plays in impeding Black progress.
That is a message that largely appeals to white voters and is “just so foreign and alien to most Black people,” according to Dr. W. Marvin Dulaney, the former head of the College of Charleston’s African American history center.
Last month, he took his message to Chicago’s South Side, where he spoke to a mostly Black gathering led by a prominent Republican pastor. Mr. Scott called liberal politicians “drug dealers of despair.” One questioner, a man released from prison in 2020 who has since struggled to gain employment and housing, asked Mr. Scott how he would help former convicts find work. Mr. Scott expressed sympathy, described social welfare policies as “colossal, crippling, continual failures,” and told the audience to “get better and not bitter.”
Mr. Scott declined an interview request. He has spoken sparingly about his first losing campaign and how it shaped his career.
Back then, Mr. Scott challenged Robert Ford, an African-American Democrat and former civil rights activist.
“I was actually surprised that anyone would challenge Robert Ford,” said Dr. Dulaney. “Robert Ford was sort of like Jim Clyburn. He was well known. He showed up at the right places.”
Race was front and center during the 1996 campaign. In an editorial endorsing Mr. Scott, the conservative-leaning editorial page of The Post and Courier accused his opponent, Mr. Ford, of practicing “race-based politics,” while praising Mr. Scott as a “moderate voice.”
Mr. Ford was a well known Democrat who had served almost two decades on the Charleston City Council and made his name after being arrested multiple times during the civil rights movement. He also had a habit of rankling fellow Democrats, including longtime Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. During the 1994 Democratic primary for governor, Mr. Ford, in an ad for Mr. Riley’s opponent, suggested that Mr. Riley was forced to support a city holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Mr. Riley endorsed Mr. Scott.
The district, described as urban and mostly middle class by local media, contained about 20,500 registered Black voters and just over 11,000 white voters in 1996. In the 1994 race for attorney general, a white Charleston Republican lost after he garnered 40 percent of the vote in the district.
Even then, Mr. Scott’s choice of parties set voters talking, sometimes in charged terms.
During one debate that fall, according to a report in The Post and Courier, a Black woman in the audience asked Mr. Ford if it was acceptable for anyone to call Mr. Scott an “Uncle Tom’’ because he was a Black Republican. According to the story, Mr. Ford said he would never use that term to describe any African American man. (In a recent interview, Mr. Ford said he could not recall that exchange and said he would never use the term.)
“He was the darling of the Republican Party,” Mr. Ford, 75, said of Mr. Scott. “He carried that role perfectly. He didn’t rock the boat.”
Mr. Scott did “rock the boat” on one hot-button issue: the Confederate flag, which at the time flew over the State House dome. Mr. Scott wanted it removed to a museum or somewhere else on State House grounds, a position Mr. Ford did not take.
Mr. Scott expected an uphill climb. “There are some party loyalists we won’t get, that’s for sure,” he told The Post and Courier during the campaign. But he figured he could peel away enough Black voters with some key endorsements and a message of economic empowerment.
Despite outspending his opponent by more than 2 to 1, and receiving bipartisan endorsements, including from Black leaders, Mr. Scott lost, receiving 35 percent of the vote to Mr. Ford’s 65 percent.
“He was pretty low,” said Pastor Greg Surratt, a close friend and spiritual adviser to Mr. Scott. “He was a little disillusioned by the whole political thing.”
Mr. Scott told The Post and Courier that outreach to minority voters had to start somewhere and that “effort is never wasted.” From then on, he would achieve electoral success in majority white jurisdictions while positioning himself as a staunch conservative who lauded faith in both religion and free markets.
“I was told by my closest friends that there was zero chance I could win,” Mr. Scott wrote in his memoir. “Yet I prayed about it and believed this was my moment.”
Some Charleston Democrats saw in Mr. Scott a political threat, not only in spite of the district’s demographic tilt, but because of it, according to Waring Howe Jr., a former Democratic Party official in Charleston who helped Mr. Ford’s campaign.
“That would have been egg on our face,” said Mr. Howe, recalling that the party brought in more resources to boost Mr. Ford’s campaign to help ensure a win. “That would have been not a little loss, but a major loss.”
Mr. Howe often sparred with Mr. Scott on a local television show modeled after CNN’s “Crossfire.” He recalled Mr. Scott framing issues in an ultraconservative way, citing Mr. Scott’s 1997 push to have the Ten Commandments displayed outside the Charleston County Council chambers.
Since the formation of the post-civil rights era Democratic Party coalition, Black Republicans simultaneously have been the subjects of fascination, admiration, mistrust and scorn. Black people overwhelmingly do not support Republican politicians. That fact has bedeviled a Republican establishment that sees a group of socially conservative, church attending voters, with concerns about crime, and believes they should be Republicans, or at the very least they should not regularly support Democrats by 75 percentage points in national elections.
Without exit polling, it can be difficult to determine the exact amount of Mr. Scott’s support among Black voters. County level data from his 2014 Senate race shows that Mr. Scott ran almost even with other statewide Republicans in Orangeburg County, which is about 62 percent Black, according to South Carolina government data.
Mr. Scott was appointed to the Senate in 2013 by former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, his current rival for the Republican presidential nomination. He ran in 2014 to fill out the term of retiring Sen. Jim DeMint, before winning a full term in 2016.
During the second 2024 Republican primary debate, Mr. Scott drew the ire of some African Americans when he said that even though Black people had “survived” slavery and Jim Crow, “What was hard to survive was Johnson’s Great Society, where they decided to put money — where they decided to take the Black father out of the household to get a check in the mail.”
That comment was in line with much of Mr. Scott’s recent political rhetoric, which acknowledges racism as an issue that has lost potency over time, before attacking liberal policies like welfare as being detrimental to African Americans. Mr. Scott has since said “there is no comparison to what happened to Black people during slavery, at all.”
While Mr. Scott fits squarely in a tradition of entrepreneurial, pro-capitalist Black conservatism from Booker T. Washington to Herman Cain, polling indicates he is out of step with Black voters on their views of racial discrimination.
An August survey from the Pew Research Center showed that 88 percent of Black adults say people overlooking racial discrimination is a larger problem than people finding racial discrimination where none exists. Around 45 percent of white respondents agreed.
At the Bluffton event, one of Mr. Scott’s supporters, 65-year-old Sal DeMarco, who is white, said he felt that African Americans do not support Republicans like Mr. Scott because Democrats “buy African American votes by throwing money at them, throwing money in welfare and food stamps.”
Mr. Scott, for his part, said at the event that he has tried to appeal to Black voters.
“In the first seven days of my campaign, I went to an African American church, because I believe everybody should be exposed to the great opportunity party and the good that we’ve done for this country,” Mr. Scott said. “We should fight for every vote in every ZIP code all day long.”