Republican U.S. Sen. Tim Scott would need to radically soften his party’s image to meaningfully grow his support among Black voters, political observers say.
Yet that doesn’t seem too likely, given that during the South Carolina senator’s official announcement of his White House bid on Monday, he didn’t do much to quiet the concerns Black voters have about the GOP and its disregard for issues that matter to them.
Most Black adults believe that “racism is an extremely big problem” and that “racial discrimination is the main reason why many Black people can’t get ahead these days,” according to the Pew Research Center. During his speech, however, Scott downplayed the persistence of racial inequality, and leaned into his party’s attacks on critical race theory. He also mentioned that his family went “from cotton to Congress in one lifetime” — his go-to rejoinder to the structural critiques of U.S. society Black voters embrace.
“For those of you who wonder if America is a racist country, take a look at how people come together,” Scott said. “We are not defined by the color of our skin. We are defined by the content of our character.”
Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, an independent organization focusing on political engagement, said that we shouldn’t be surprised that Scott cleaved to this particular biography, defined by post-racial myths. It allowed the senator to fit himself into the soothing version of our country’s history the largely white GOP base likes to tell — and those are the voters Scott needs to win over to secure the nomination.
About 10% of Black adults today identify with or lean toward the Republican Party, per Pew.
Shropshire explained that Scott’s ability to resonate with Black voters is “completely controlled” by what the GOP has decided to be at this point in history.
“Scott might give Black Republicans an alternative in the primary. There are ways, I think, Black Republicans struggle with the choices they’ve had to make,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean very much for the wider Black electorate.”
This dynamic, experts note, isn’t too shocking. After all, Scott’s affiliated with a party often associated with racist behavior and rhetoric, and most Black voters are firm Democrats.
“The GOP brand in Black America is really damaged,” said Theodore Johnson, a senior adviser at New America, a public policy think tank. “Indictments of Scott from Black America are more connected to his brand as a Republican and his loyalty to former President Donald Trump, whom he voted in line with more than 90% of the time, and aren’t necessarily because Black voters hate Scott’s position on HBCUs or small-business ownership.”
Scott’s entry into the 2024 GOP primary came two days before Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who’s seemingly exploited his party’s move further to the right, joined the race.
Just last week, the NAACP issued a travel advisory for Florida. The announcement was in response to DeSantis’ “aggressive attempts to erase Black history and to restrict diversity, equity, and inclusion programs in Florida schools,” read the civil rights group’s statement, referring to the governor’s determination to ban critical race theory and “wokeness,” terms he uses as imprecise pejoratives for the broad push for racial equality.
“Let me be clear,” added Derrick Johnson, the president and CEO of the NAACP. “Failing to teach an accurate representation of the horrors and inequalities that Black Americans have faced and continue to face is a disservice to students and a dereliction of duty to all.”
Todd Shaw, an associate professor of political science and African American studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, underscored that figures such as DeSantis and Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott are reinforcing the Trump brand. In February, Abbott excoriated diversity, equity, and inclusion policies and told state agencies that hiring can’t be based on anything “other than merit.”
In this environment — rife with book bans aimed at titles by Black authors and with restrictions on classroom conversations about slavery and the Civil Rights Movement — Scott would face an uphill battle to modify Black voters’ negative perceptions about the GOP.
“There’s just a lot Scott would have to do in order for the Republican Party to be appealing to a larger segment of the Black community,” Shaw said.
Theodore Johnson was a bit more skeptical of Scott pulling off such a feat, stressing that, “unless something incredible happens,” nothing in recent history or in the senator’s campaign indicates that he can bring in a significant number of Black voters without turning off white voters.
Scott’s positions as a senator
Stephen Gilchrist, a Republican appointee on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and one of Scott’s longtime friends, said that he’s “thrilled” about the senator’s decision to throw his hat into the ring, given his stances on certain matters.
“I can’t remember a time when the state has had such a diverse and qualified list of candidates seeking the presidency,” he said. “To have a South Carolina senator and a former governor [Nikki Haley] vie for the presidency shows the amount of talent, skill, and, quite frankly, commitment to America that exists right here in South Carolina.”
Gilchrist specified that he’s pleased that Scott and Trump collaborated to create the Opportunity Zone program, which the senator often touts as his signature policy achievement.
(Though the program was designed to boost economic growth in low-income areas, scholarly research has found that it’s “generally failed to achieve its stated goal.”)
Scott has championed other issues over the course of his decade in Congress’s upper chamber that are popular among some Black voters. For instance, along with Democratic U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, the South Carolina senator has led bipartisan talks on police reform. Negotiations began in the summer of 2020, after George Floyd’s death sparked protests across the country, but since then have largely fizzled out.
And even before Floyd was murdered, “Scott was pushing the Walter Scott Notification Act,” Johnson pointed out. He was referring to legislation, named after the 50-year-old Black man who was gunned down by a police officer in North Charleston in 2015, that’d require reporting on deadly shootings involving law enforcement.
Scott also co-sponsored the Emmett Till Antilynching Act of 2022, which designated lynching as a federal hate crime. It honors the 14-year-old boy who was brutally killed in Mississippi in 1955.
Still, the senator can’t outrun his party’s reputation or his staunchly conservative voting record.
“I think that Scott does actually care about things such as criminal justice, but he’s pragmatic. And that can cause people to question his motives,” Johnson said. “The other challenge is that his solutions are conservative, so they aren’t going to have a ton of traction among folks on the left — Black or white.”
‘The Democratic Party is the party for Black voters’
Scott’s presidential run shines a spotlight on Black voters’ enduring allegiance to the Democratic Party: More than 80% of Black registered voters identify with or lean toward the GOP’s chief political rival, according to Pew.
Black voters are no monolith, of course. They’re more ideologically diverse than they get credit for, spanning the spectrum from liberal to conservative on a variety of issues: race, social welfare, government intervention, and on and on.
Yet as an empirical and a racial minority, said Chryl Laird, an associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park, Black voters must be strategic about where they direct their power in a majority-based political system that wasn’t necessarily designed for them to have much influence.
She explained that what we’ve seen at various points in history, going back to the period of enslavement, are Black efforts to leverage the power of the group and sanction individuals who threaten it, with the belief that the collective interest is vital.
Since the 1960s, when the GOP began to double down on its anti-civil rights positions, “there’s been a very clear norm within the group that the Democratic Party is the party for Black voters,” Laird noted. “That if we’re going to put our collective support behind one party, we ought to put it there, because the Democratic Party will be the most effective at improving the status of the group.”
Laird, who’s the co-author of the 2020 book Steadfast Democrats: How Social Forces Shape Black Political Behavior, said that there may have been a time when Scott’s bid for the White House would’ve received greater fanfare among Black voters for the representation the senator provides. But Black political empowerment has been happening within the Democratic Party since around the middle of the 20th century.
Some, specifically those on the right, might view Black voters’ loyalty to the Democratic Party as a kind of groupthink. This characterization, however, couldn’t be further from the truth, argued Shaw, the USC professor.
Black voters are keenly aware that the political system is constraining, he said, and “they’re making decisions that are logical — given only two major choices.”