Cover Story: A new-look Grand Old Party?

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

ROCK HILL, SC (WBTV) - The new-look Grand Old Party.  An uncomfortable history of racial and ethnic politics.  Now, South Carolina Republicans are leaving the past behind - nominating two non-white candidates for two of the state's top offices.

Tuesday's primary runoff in South Carolina potentially changes the face of the national party -- a party historically dominated by older white men.

Palmetto state voters nominated an Indian-American woman for governor and an African-American man for the U-S House.  Nikki Haley and Tim Scott.  Perhaps the new faces of the GOP?

The head of the Republican National Committee, himself a black man, says these candidates "Don't look or sound like typical Republicans."

Haley and Scott also have something else in common.  Both overcame extremely long odds - going up against better known candidates, but got big endorsements from Sarah Palin and others.

For many, the fact of Strom Thurmond's son losing to a black man and a woman in South Carolina's governor's mansion, once they get past the shock - the question many ask is how did this happen?

Is it a new day dawning in South Carolina?  History certainly was made.

In a state where the GOP has a firm hand - by November South Carolina is likely to wind up with the state's first woman chief executive and America's first Sikh-born governor.  And the first black Republican to represent South Carolina in Congress since Reconstruction.

It's surprising to a lot of people.  Says Marty Callaghan, "South Carolina again. Just when you think you've got us figured, we do something different."

Bessie Mann of Rock Hill quipped, "God ain't got no color."

And apparently neither color nor ethnicity mattered to Republican primary voters.

Racial issues were conspicuously absent in the Tim Scott - Paul Thurmond race in South Carolina's First Congressional District, a district which runs along the coast.  Thurmond, the son of former segregationist Strom Thurmond, got less than a third of the vote.

In the governor's race however, Nikki Haley's upbringing - her parents are from India - came up in the election when a fellow Republican made disparaging remarks but it carried no weight in the election.  What did was Sarah Palin and others' endorsements and the Tea Party's backing.

Winthrop University political scientist Dr. Adolphus Belk says, "Neither candidate wanted the story to be about their race, ethnicity or religion. And it many ways I think their candidacy mirrors that of President Barack Obama."

But their politics - vastly different from the president.  Both Nikki Haley and Tim Scott stressed they were as conservative as they come.

And in a crowded field of white men they were able to stand out - because they looked different from other Republicans.

For Stanley Merritt, who was backing Gresham Barrett for governor it's bittersweet.  He says he is disappointed his candidate lost but sees the significance in a woman being elected to office.  He adds, "I just hope if she does get voted I hope she does a good job."

For Republicans letting more people in the tent is the only way it's going to survive.  White voters represent an ever-shrinking share of the electorate.

Have we gotten to the point where race doesn't matter in politics?

Says political scientist Belk, "We have these sorts of flare up from time to time and the measure of us as a state and nation is how we deal with these things and how do we move forward."

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, who is black, actively recruited African-American candidates to run on the GOP ticket this year.  A majority of the ones he enlisted have either dropped out or lost their races.

Tim Scott is the exception.  If he wins in November, which is expected - the first district is staunchly Republican - he will be the first black Republican in the House of Representatives since 2003.

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