Though he would clearly prefer to discuss substantive matters other than race—”I try to steer away from these issues,” Mr. Scott says—he recognizes that he has been thrust into the spotlight as a groundbreaking black politician. With some prodding, he reluctantly addresses the subject.

He says that he is fully aware of the challenge that he presents to the GOP’s traditional liberal critics. “I think one of the most threatening places to be in politics is a black conservative,” Mr. Scott says, “because there are so many liberals who want to continue to reinforce a stereotype that doesn’t exist about America.” What stereotype is that? “That somehow, some way, if you’re a Republican you’re a racist and if you’re black, there’s no chance for you in society.

“We have serious challenges in this nation. Some are racial. But in my life, the vast majority of people that have really afforded me the opportunity to succeed were white folks. Is there a better way to say that?”

Mr. Scott’s own story exemplifies the change in attitudes taking hold in the New South. When he first ran for office 18 years ago, for county council, even his friends were shocked. “People said, ‘Son, you’re running in the wrong party.’ They had never even heard of a black Republican. I ran against a white guy, who was a very popular Democrat at the time. I won, not because I was black and a Republican. I won because they liked my values.”