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When Sen. Tim Scott Calls, Republican Candidates Show Up

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., hosts Donald Trump in his series of town halls with GOP presidential candidates in September.
Sean Rayford
Getty Images
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., hosts Donald Trump in his series of town halls with GOP presidential candidates in September.

South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott is playing an increasingly important role in his state's crucial Republican primary. He's also playing an important role in his party, as the only black Republican in the Senate at a time when the GOP is struggling to win minority support.

Since August of this year, he's hosted most of his party's candidates for the 2016 nomination at venues around his state. Each of Tim's Town Halls, as he calls them, opens with prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance — and an enthusiastic welcome from Scott. He began holding the forums, which are funded by his Senate campaign, during the 2012 Republican primary cycle.

Scott says the goal is to give his constituents an up-close look at the candidates they'll be choosing from in late February.

"The reality of it is, since 1980, South Carolina has consistently chosen the Republican nominee for the presidency," Scott said.

Except, he said, for 2012, when primary voters chose former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

"I'd like for us to continue that streak, and it makes our state very important in the primary process," Scott said.

The town hall series also gives South Carolina voters a chance to see Scott in action. His star has been steadily rising since he was elected to Congress in 2010. Two years later, Gov. Nikki Haley appointed him to replace a legendary South Carolina kingmaker — Sen. Jim DeMint. Scott won the seat in a special election in 2014 and faces a campaign for a full six-year term next year.

Scott's rise also has symbolic importance, as his good friend, South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, acknowledged during a town hall last month with Dr. Ben Carson at Bob Jones University in Greenville.

"We are under the watchful eye of President Lincoln, and I can't help but think how proud he would be to see his party have a candidate of color for the highest office in our land being interviewed by the only Republican African-American senator in the United States Senate," Gowdy said. "But I think that he would be concerned at the audience and our inability to attract people of color to hear our message. How can we do better?"

Like Carson, Scott often refers to his personal story of growing up with a hard-working single mom and rising out of poverty. Scott says Republicans have to persuade minority voters that the GOP message is for them.

"Someone once said that voters will vote for candidates they don't like; voters will not vote for candidates who don't like them," Scott said. "So we have to make sure we're not sending signals that we don't like the voters in a certain demographic category or for any other reasons."

In his Senate office on a recent afternoon, Scott leans back on his sofa, propping his shoeless feet on the coffee table — revealing polka-dot socks.

At his office in Washington, D.C., Scott shows off his socks. "It's dreary outside," he says, "but it's sunny on my feet."
Sarah McCammon / NPR
At his office in Washington, D.C., Scott shows off his socks. "It's dreary outside," he says, "but it's sunny on my feet."

"It's just my way of taking the mundane and making it at least a little more interesting. I think I wear blue, charcoal gray and black, so anything that provides color on my 'uniform,' so to speak, is great," Scott said. "Today is a day when it's dreary outside, but it's sunny on my feet."

Scott's self-deprecating charm and conservative message have made him popular with voters at home. His approval ratings are double-digits above his fellow South Carolina senator, Lindsey Graham, who is engaged in a struggling campaign for president.

Bill Bates drove from Goose Creek, near Charleston, to attend a forum with former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina in Aiken, S.C. Bates said he is not pleased with most Republicans right now, but he's a fan of Scott. He said Scott exhibits honesty and integrity, and he's personable.

"I worked in his campaign. I'm a believer in Tim Scott. I know Tim Scott, and he is what this country needs," Bates said.

Scott is wrapping up his series of candidate town halls by hosting Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in Greenville on Monday. Scott and House Speaker Paul Ryan will host a forum focused on poverty in January. After that, Scott says he'll announce his endorsement, if he makes one at all, sometime before the state's first-in-the-South primary — less than two weeks after New Hampshire Republicans have their say.

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Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.