CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — A black lawmaker is battling the son of one-time segregationist Strom Thurmond for the Republican congressional nomination here, a contest that could provide an indicator of both racial progress in the South and the GOP's ability to diversify.
There are black men in the White House and at the helm of the Republican Party, but there hasn't been a black Republican congressman since Oklahoma's J.C. Watts retired in 2003.
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Tim Scott, already South Carolina's first black Republican legislator in a century, has a shot at changing that, but first he has to beat Paul Thurmond, whose father ran for president as a Dixiecrat on a segregationist platform six decades ago.
Scott, a 44-year old who runs an insurance business, got more than 30 percent of the vote in the nine-way primary last week. Thurmond, 34, got about half that, but there's a runoff Tuesday because no one got more than 50 percent.
Scott is one of three black Republican congressional hopefuls in runoffs nationwide. Five have won their party nominations outright, and several others are expected to, said David Bositis, a senior political analyst at the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
But Scott said he's focused on issues, not race or history.
"My father said that the future is more important than the past," Scott said. "We should be appreciative of our heritage but at the end of the day it's more about tomorrow — can America sustain $13 trillion in deficit?"
Paul Thurmond echoed that, saying: "It's not about the color of our skin — it's about our background and our message. Tim has not run on the color of his skin and I have not run on my father's name."
Strom Thurmond eventually renounced his segregationist views and strove for reconciliation during decades in the U.S. Senate. When he died seven years ago at age 100, he was eulogized by black and white people alike.
Voter Charlie Bodine, a 40-year-old salesman who moved to the state about 10 years ago, said he plans to vote for Paul Thurmond, though he doesn't know much about him beyond who his father was.
"It's probably just the name," Bodine said. "It really is. And it's just as simple as that for me."
Mary Beth Kellenses, a 23-year-old office manager for a law firm, said she's voting for Scott, but she doesn't care about his race or Thurmond's lineage.
"I just love Tim Scott," she said. "It gets really irritating when people mention things about him being black or Strom Thurmond — that's not who his son is."
They two are competing for the 1st District seat held by retiring GOP Rep. Henry Brown in a district that reaches from the pastel buildings and quiet alleys of Charleston, northeast past affluent Sullivans Island where tens of thousands of slaves once first landed in America, and to the high-rise condominiums of Myrtle Beach.
The winner of the runoff faces Democrat Ben Frasier, who is black.
Over the past two decades, an influx of northerners has turned the region's politics more moderate, but the district has been Republican for 30 years.
The National Republican Congressional Committee hasn't backed either candidate, but spokesman Andy Sere said some of its leaders have given money to Scott. U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House Republican whip, has endorsed him.
"I think everyone in our party recognizes the importance of making sure that we have leaders in the party who are representative of Americans from all walks of life and that's not limited to race," Sere said.
Merle Black, a political scientist from Emory University in Atlanta said that usually runoffs mean fewer voters because those whose candidates are ousted earlier sometimes sit them out.
"But in this instance where you have an African-American running and you have the son of a former U.S. senator — a legendary senator — those factors may make this different," he said.
Bositis cautioned against reading too much into what a Scott victory would say about South Carolina's progress. He said a black politician like Scott is more of an anomaly that an indicator of post-racial change in a conservative state where white politicians have made recent racist remarks about the president, first lady and a gubernatorial candidate.
"It certainly is a changing country in a lot of places in the country, yes," Bositis said. But he added: "South Carolina is not one of those places, not by a long shot."
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.