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GOP senator sinks Trump nominee, lands in the spotlight

December 1, 2018

FILE - In this Sept. 13, 2017, file photo, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. talks to reporters about his plan to meet with President Donald Trump to discuss race at the Capitol in Washington. Scott’s opposition Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018 to President Donald Trump's nominee to serve as a North Carolina district judge likely doomed the chances of Thomas Farr, criticized by civil rights groups for defending state laws found to have discriminated against African-Americans. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — U.S. Sen. Tim Scott’s opposition to one of President Donald Trump’s nominees bucked GOP leadership this week, but it wasn’t necessarily out of character.

Scott’s decision denied Thomas Farr the chance of becoming the next Trump appointment to the federal judiciary. Farr, a nominee criticized by civil rights groups for defending laws ruled by courts to have been discriminatory, was dependent on Scott’s support in a closely divided Senate.

Scott’s ultimate conclusion came a day after he weathered criticism from the left when he cast the deciding vote Wednesday to move Farr’s nomination to a floor vote. South Carolina’s Democratic Party blasted out an email asking voters to call on Scott to oppose Farr’s nomination, calling it “unfortunate, but not surprising, that Senator Tim Scott needs help with this decision.”

Civil rights leader William Barber called Scott’s decision to simply allow for a vote on Farr “what internalized racism and political delusion look(s) like.” A day later, he simply said Scott had “done the right thing” in ultimately deciding that he wouldn’t support Farr if that vote were taken.

Scott’s decision pitted him against top Republicans who defended Farr’s qualifications, but there are several reasons for which Scott could feel politically safe making it. A fiscal conservative, Scott has been a strong supporter of Trump’s policies and almost always votes with his party.

Not up for re-election until 2022, Scott remains highly popular at home. This fall, a Winthrop University poll found Scott with a 76 percent approval rating among Republicans, with 55 percent approval among the general public.

“Tim Scott has been smart in picking which of the things to speak out on,” said College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts. “He strikes me as the kind of person who certainly has political skill but also has a sense of right and wrong, and I suspect he just felt this was too far.”

Friends say the decision by Scott — the first black Republican elected to the Senate from the South since Reconstruction — is representative of the South Carolina senator’s commitment to oppose intolerance and equalize the playing field of opportunity for all people.

“Tim is big on living out his values in the way we treat others,” says Matt Moore, a former South Carolina Republican Party chairman who served as Scott’s first U.S. Senate statewide director and considers him a close friend. “When you combine that with his concern about race in America, it’s no surprise he opposed Farr.”

It’s an ethos with origins in the hardscrabble beginnings that Scott, 53, shared with his mother, brother and grandparents in North Charleston. Struggling through high school, Scott ultimately found his footing after stumbling into a mentorship with business owner John Moniz, whom he has credited with motivating him to succeed.

Scott’s unique position in the Senate has given him a platform to address race in ways others in his party can’t.

“I have felt the anger, the frustration, the sadness and the humiliation that comes with feeling like you’re being targeted for nothing more than being just yourself,” Scott said in a 2016 floor speech, adding he’d been stopped by a U.S. Capitol Police officer who questioned Scott’s credentials despite the fact that he was wearing a pin that identified him as a U.S. senator.

Scott has also directly addressed criticism fielded from liberals who’ve accused him of betraying his race in decisions like supporting Jeff Sessions’ nomination as U.S. attorney general, reading Twitter messages accusing him of being an “Uncle Tom” or a “House negro.”

“I left out all the ones that use the n-word,” Scott said. “I just felt like that would be not appropriate.”

But Scott sees his role in the Senate as about far more than race and more about authenticity, according to Moore.

“Tim Scott is hesitant to be seen as the ‘black Republican,’” Moore said. “He’s much more interested in attacking issues that affect all Americans.”

That includes ideas like Scott’s “Opportunity Zones,” which allow investors who direct money into distressed communities to defer capital gains taxes for up to 10 years.

Rob Godfrey, who’s known Scott for years and was part of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s senior staff when she appointed him to the Senate in 2013, said Scott can make moves like this one without being worried about upsetting his base, or without the feel of needing to try to win over black voters, a base that overwhelmingly supports Democrats in South Carolina.

“What you have here is a calculation not of politics but instead of principles,” Godfrey said. “When Tim Scott has seen things that were unjust or weren’t right, he’s led on those things, and he’s done so regardless of any of the consequences that could come along with it because he’s been concerned with lifting everyone up.”

That mentality, said Matt Moore, made Scott’s decision Thursday to join Arizona Republican Jeff Flake and 49 Democratic lawmakers in opposing Farr’s nomination to a North Carolina federal judgeship unsurprising, especially in light of the unearthing of a Department of Justice memo concerning Farr’s activities while a campaign lawyer for North Carolina GOP Sen. Jesse Helms.

According to the Justice Department under President George H.W. Bush, about 120,000 postcards sent mostly to black voters were intended to intimidate them from voting.

Farr, heavily criticized by civil rights groups, told senators he wasn’t consulted about the postcards and “was appalled” by their content.

Godfrey said Scott’s view on working toward progress sometimes supersedes politics altogether.

“He’s avoided the potholes of partisan politics, and he’s also avoided divisive labels of identity politics,” Godfrey said. “What he’s been able to do is actually take on some important issues that lift everybody up.”

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This story has been corrected to show that Scott is the first black Republican elected to the Senate from the South since Reconstruction.

Meg Kinnard can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP .

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