There seems to be a fair amount of national interest in who will replace Jim DeMint in the Senate. A lot of this interest focuses on Representative Tim Scott. I remember people talking about who would be appointed to replace retiring Republican Senator Jim Ensign from Nevada. Whoever was appointed to replace Ensign would face a strong Democratic challenge to keep the seat so it mattered whether Republican Governor Sandoval picked a strong candidate like Dean Heller or a likely loser like Sharron Angle. As it happened, Heller narrowly held the seat. South Carolina is a Republican-leaning state in federal politics. It is likely that any competent Republican chosen by Governor Nikki Haley will be strongly favored to hold the seat in 2014. The South Carolina Republican House of Representatives delegation is remarkably ideologically homogenous. If Haley’s choice is unlikely to alter either the partisan balance of power within the Senate or the ideological balance of power within the Senate Republican Caucus, why does it matter whether Haley picks Rep. Tim Scott or Rep. Trey Gowdy or Rep. Mick Mulvaney for DeMint’s seat?
And yet we’ve seen conservative activists Erick Erickson, Matt Lewis, The American Conservative Union, Senator Lindsey Graham and even moderate-to-liberal journalist John Avlon come out for Tim Scott. I’ve seen Scott on television about a dozen times. He seems like a better combination of principle, eloquence and shrewdness than the average House Republican. From my outsider’s perspective, Scott looks like he would be a fine choice. But still, why the national attention?
Erickson wrote “Gov. Nikki Haley now has the ability to give the US Senate its only black Senator — a conservative from South Carolina named Tim Scott.” Lindsey Graham said Scott would be “transformational.” John Avlon spells out what a lot of people seem to be thinking when he writes:
The primary reason is frankly the fact that Scott would be the first African-American Republican in the U.S. Senate since the election of Ed Brooke in the 1960s—who himself was the first African-American senator elected since Reconstruction.
But we ultimately all have a national interest in depolarizing our politics along racial lines, especially in an era where Republican candidates rarely get more than 10 percent of the African-American vote.
I think that this view is more wrong than right. I don’t know who is supposed to be impressed that a Republican governor would appoint an African-American. One of the lessons of the last decade is that Republicans don’t win many nonwhite votes by nominating (or even electing) nonwhite Republicans to visible positions. Appointing the first two Republican Secretaries of State didn’t help Republicans win African American votes. Electing two Latino Republican governors in 2010 didn’t prevent Mitt Romney from gaining a smaller share of the Latino vote in 2012 than McCain got (under worse circumstances) in 2008. It doesn’t work that way. It isn’t that easy. It shouldn’t be that easy. We don’t want people to be that malleable.
So what are Republicans to do? Focus on building an agenda, language, and communications channels that reach voters who have no personal (and probably no family) history of voting Republican, who do not consume right-leaning media, and who have not been socialized to the right-leaning narratives of the last forty years. You have to do this in the face of peer effects and a hostile media that will make these voters initially skeptical of any Republican message. The fastest way to do this would be through a combination of in depth survey research and experimentation. What are these voters priorities? How do they rank order these priorities? How do they respond to different policies? How do they respond to different presentations of different policies? What communication channels reach them at the greatest effective length. This is a place where the campaign mechanics, policy people, and tech people should work together. Yuval Levin and Jim Manzi should be in on both the survey research and the message experiments. Better them than Karl Rove. This is basically a more collaborative version of what Ronald Reagan did with GE when he would go around trying to figure out how to sell a conservative Republican politics to unionized, FDR-loving, Democrats. When the Republicans come up with strategies that do better than the ones they have now, those strategies will work about as well for white, African-American or Latino Republican candidates.
If Tim Scott is the guy, then he is the guy. His skin color neither helps nor hurts the Republicans. What would hurt the Republicans is the mistaken idea that they have will have made actual progress among nonwhites by appointing Tim Scott to the Senate. Such a mistaken idea would just cause them to waste more time.