CHARLESTON, S.C. — South Carolina voters have nominated an Indian-American woman for governor and a black state lawmaker for Congress — developments which, on their face, suggest landmark racial progress in a state that still flies the Confederate flag near its statehouse.
Still, some are asking whether the victories by state representatives Nikki Haley and Tim Scott are a sign of real change or just an aberration of conservative politics.
Haley, the child of Sikh immigrants from India, took 65 percent of the vote in Tuesday's GOP primary runoff, after trouncing three white male opponents two weeks earlier. And Scott, the lone black Republican state legislator, had an even wider victory margin in a 72-percent white coastal congressional district over the son of the late political icon and one-time segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond.
In a state where voting has previously run along racial fault lines the results do mark a change, said political scientist Merle Black of Emory University in Atlanta.
"It's an interesting shift because it goes against the stereotypes," he said. "It helps the Republican Party become more racially and ethnically diverse."
The elections come in a state where the first shots of the Civil War sounded, and where Jim Crow-era policies and the lawsuit that led to the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregation originated.
Fast forward to the past year, and it's where officials have apologized after likening an escaped gorilla to an ancestor of first lady Michelle Obama and referring to President Barack Obama and Haley as ragheads.
But Haley and Scott stressed their message, not their ethnicity or gender.
"They had the right message, and they had the leadership skills to get it done," said state House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham.
Melissa Ervin, a white voter from Mount Pleasant, said race had nothing to do with her vote for Scott.
"It kept coming across that he was very conservative and had traditional values," the 45-year-old interior designer said. "I thought he was the better person for the job."
Ervin, who voted for Barrett in the gubernatorial primary, said she was more surprised that Haley was nominated in a state that consistently ranks last nationwide in the percentage of female legislators.
Endorsed by Sarah Palin and tea party groups, Haley and Scott are social and fiscal conservatives. Although they have served in the state Legislature, they cast themselves as political outsiders, ready to shake things up.
"I'm tired of the good ol' boy system," said Greenville voter Carol Gregory, a 62-year-old dental hygienist. "I think across the board, we're just ready for a change."
Good timing was on their side in other ways too, said state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg. She noted the scandal surrounding Gov. Mark Sanford's secretive trip to visit his mistress in Argentina and the uproar over U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson's "You lie!" heckling of President Obama. [See who is giving money to Wilson's campaign.]
And then there's Alvin Greene, an unemployed military veteran recently nominated by the Democrats to run for U.S. Senate, despite a pending felony obscenity charge.
After more than a year of being "America's whoopee cushion," as comedian Jon Stewart recently put it, South Carolina voters wanted to change outsiders' perception of the state, Cobb-Hunter said.
"Politics is about timing, and their timing has been perfect to seize the moment and capitalize on a real desire to be perceived in a positive light nationally," said Cobb-Hunter, who is black.
Attorney General Henry McMaster, who endorsed Haley after losing to her two weeks ago, said the nominations of Haley and Scott mark a "new day for South Carolina, and it's all positive."
"I think we get a lot of publicity we see on late night talk shows, and all that does not accurately reflect the people of South Carolina or their spirit," he said.