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GOP Sen. Tim Scott: “Stop bringing candidates with questionable track records on race before the full Senate”

The only black Republican senator took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to explain why he vetoed a controversial judicial nominee.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) arrives for the Senate Republicans’ lunch in the Capitol in April 2018.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

In a letter to the editor in the Wall Street Journal, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott — the only black Republican in the Senate — defended his decision to oppose the nomination of Judge Thomas Farr to a federal district court seat, writing, “Simply put, if the Senate votes on a candidate that doesn’t move us” towards racial reconciliation and unity, “I will not support him or her. Our country deserves better.”

While you are right that [Farr’s] nomination should be seen through a wider lens, the solution isn’t simply to decry “racial attacks.” Instead, we should stop bringing candidates with questionable track records on race before the full Senate for a vote.

Unfortunately, there are those in this country who see racism in everything, and they are countered by those who believe racism no longer exists in any substantive way. While our nation has made significant progress over the past 50 years, there is no doubt we still have work left to do.

What this means, regardless of the obvious issues the Democratic Party has on race, is that the Republican Party must strive to do better. We can build on the momentum of opportunity zones and criminal-justice reform to show we are serious about tackling real issues facing people of color. I know conservative solutions can transform lives, but if folks don’t trust us, implementing those solutions becomes impossible.

Scott was responding to a Wall Street Journal editorial that argued, in part, “There’s no reason to doubt the sincerity of Mr. Scott, the Senate’s only black Republican. But Democrats will see Mr. Farr’s defeat as a vindication of their most underhanded and inflammatory racial tactics.”

Sen. Scott’s decision is somewhat of a departure from the rest of the GOP, which has embraced curbs on voting rights to shore up their electoral position in states like Michigan and Wisconsin. While termed as an effort to better adequately reflect the priorities of rural voters by some on the right, my colleague Zack Beauchamp has written that “the spread of extreme partisan gerrymandering and voter ID laws, tools used by Republicans to marginalize minorities and other Democratic-leaning constituencies” is evidence that the GOP “is engaged in a systematic and nationally coordinated effort to rewrite the rules of the political game in their favor.”

Tim Scott is the only black Republican in the Senate. He was also the only Republican to raise objections to Farr over race.

Scott announced his decision to oppose Farr’s nomination on November 29, which, as Vox’s Li Zhou has written, came on the basis of Farr’s support for voter suppression. He specifically cited North Carolina’s voter ID law (which the Fourth Circuit Court concluded “targeted African Americans with almost surgical precision”), and a 1991 Justice Department memo detailing Farr’s involvement in the 1990 campaign of former North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, during which the Helms campaign sent more than 120,000 postcards targeted at mostly African-American voters aiming to intimidate and prevent them from going to the polls.

“I am ready and willing to support strong candidates for our judicial vacancies that do not have lingering concerns about issues that could affect their decision-making process as a federal judge,” Scott said in a statement on the nomination. “This week, a Department of Justice memo written under President George H.W. Bush was released that shed new light on Mr. Farr’s activities. This, in turn, created more concerns. Weighing these important factors, this afternoon I concluded that I could not support Mr. Farr’s nomination.”

Farr also served as lead counsel for Helms’s 1984 campaign, a campaign that circulated photographs of Helms’s Democratic opponent, then-Gov. Jim Hunt, with black leaders, and used his support of a holiday honoring Martin Luther King against him.

A Washington Post article from November 1984 detailed that campaign:

Helms campaign literature sounded a drumbeat of warnings about black voter- registration drives. His campaign newspaper featured photographs of Hunt with Jesse L. Jackson and headlines like “Black Voter Registration Rises Sharply” and “Hunt Urges More Minority Registration.” Helms shamelessly mined the race issue. He called Hunt a “racist” for appealing to black votes on the basis of his support of civil rights measures. His press secretary Claude Allen, a black, tried to link Hunt with “queers.” Allen later apologized.

But Helms didn’t waver. On election eve, he accused Hunt of being supported by “homosexuals, the labor-union bosses and the crooks” and said he feared a large “bloc vote.” What did he mean? “The black vote,” Helms said.

That campaign also featured efforts to repress black voting: The 1991 DOJ memo noted that “Farr was the primary coordinator of the 1984 ‘ballot security’ program conducted by the NCGOP and 1984 Helms for Senate Committee. He coordinated several ‘ballot security’ activities in 1984, including a postcard mailing to voters in predominantly black precincts which was designed to serve as a basis to challenge voters on election day.”

Farr was the second judicial nominee opposed by Scott on the grounds of racial animus. Scott’s decision has received criticism from some conservatives. On the allegations against Farr, Ethics and Public Policy Center president Ed Whelan wrote in National Review, “it appears that Senator Scott has allowed himself to be snookered.”

In the Washington Examiner, Quin Hillyer wrote, “Scott is blocking a superbly qualified nominee for no good reason. Worse, Scott is in effect saying that Democrats are right that Republicans don’t care about racism because every other one of his Republican colleagues and the entire conservative legal community has embraced a nominee about whom there are ‘lingering questions and potential past acts of discrimination.’” (Hillyer also argued that the 1984 postcard campaign was “legal and constructive and not even remotely racist.”)

Republicans and conservatives now face a choice: whether they’re willing to stand behind objections to judges and other nominees who have engaged in racially motivated practices to suppress non-white voting, leveled on these candidates from black Republicans like Tim Scott — or whether they will stand behind those practices.

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