When South Carolina Senator Tim Scott launched a presidential exploratory committee on Wednesday, it seemed like he had a lot going for him. His Senate colleagues speak glowingly about him. He recently brought on former Colorado Senator Cory Gardner, who previously chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee, to co-chair the super PAC supporting his political goals. GOP mega-donors love Scott, too: tech billionaire Larry Ellison, who has given more than $20 million to the Scott-aligned super PAC, is just one of the Republican power players who have backed him.
“There may be some people who don’t like him, but I’ve never met one,” says longtime Republican consultant Whit Ayres.
Yet in the Republican 2024 primary, that may not be enough: Scott is currently polling around 1%. As the presidential field begins to take shape, Scott faces the daunting task of carving out space at the helm of a party still in the grip of former President Donald Trump. The most recent polls of the Republican primary field have found Trump with a commanding lead among the possible 2024 contenders, sometimes earning the support of more than half of GOP voters. Trump’s closest competition numbers-wise is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has yet to launch a bid. Both men have built reputations as pugnacious culture warriors. It remains to be seen whether Scott’s alternative—a positive message focused on unity, faith in America, and his own biography—can move voters into his column.
“I wish that there was a lane for a sunny optimist telling an optimistic story about America,” says anti-Trump Republican strategist Sarah Longwell. “But in the last eight years, Donald Trump has made a Republican Party that craves catastrophe.” Longwell continues: “There needs to be really only one other lane, and that is an alternative to Donald Trump.”
It’s not clear that anti-Trump voters will see Scott as their best bet. “The Trump lane, the anti-Trump lane, the more-than MAGA, I don’t think [Scott] fits in those things,” Utah Senator Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, told Politico earlier this month. “There are a number of voters who are tired of all the sturm und drang and the anger and the vituperative comments. On the other hand, the base is still with folks who are adept at those things.”
In a launch video posted Wednesday, Scott espoused an optimistic vision of the country based on his experience growing up in poverty. “We had faith,” he says in the video. “We put in the work. And we had an unwavering belief that we, too, could live the American Dream. I know America is a land of opportunity, not a land of oppression. I know it because I’ve lived it.” He aimed his criticisms at President Joe Biden and Democrats, rather than at other Republicans. Asked on Fox and Friends how he planned to beat Trump, he did not directly answer the question.
In order to carve out his own lane in the race, he’ll have to emphasize his unique strengths, strategists say. In addition to his good reputation among donors, he could capitalize on the fact that he’s from South Carolina, an early primary state where a strong showing might improve his political standing. But he faces competition even for that niche with former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, another non-white South Carolinian touting a unique personal story and optimistic vision for America, who has already been running for two months. But arguably more than Haley, Scott has emphasized his race throughout his political career. A source familiar with his organization tells TIME that his story of achieving the American dream and his firsthand experience with the vitriol Democrats have sometimes demonstrated toward Black Republicans are likely to be key differentiators for his campaign.
“Joe Biden and the radical left have chosen a culture of grievance over greatness,” Scott says in his launch video. “All too often, when they get called out for their failures, they weaponize race to divide us, to hold onto their power. When I fought back against their liberal agenda, they called me ‘a prop,’ ‘a token,’ because I disrupt their narrative. I threaten their control. They know the truth of my life disproves their lies.”
Of all the things that set him apart, strategists inside and outside Scott’s orbit say his identity may give him the most unique opportunity to appeal to Republicans. “They’ll say they don’t care a lot about that, because we don’t believe in identity politics as Republicans,” Ayres says. “But they know that the country’s changing, and they know that a different kind of candidate would be very attractive.”
As the Senate’s only Black Republican, Scott has championed issues popular among conservatives, like anti-abortion legislation and tax cuts. But he has also distinguished himself by leaning into his personal story. Scott has often talked about his experiences being racially profiled by police, including on his way into the Capitol years after joining Congress.
Working with Democratic Senator Cory Booker, Scott helped institute Opportunity Zones, which created tax advantages for investments in economically-distressed communities, in the tax plan Trump signed in 2017. After the 2020 murder of George Floyd, Scott and Booker became their party’s lead negotiators on police reform, but failed to reach a compromise. Prior to that, Scott sunk more than one of Trump’s judicial nominees who faced race-related controversies.
But in a party that’s overwhelmingly white, and which has at times stoked racial grievance, identity may not be the easiest selling point. Asked by TIME in a February interview about whether Republican presidential candidates of color might benefit from their identities, Michael Steele, the first Black chair of the Republican National Committee, wasn’t convinced. “You’ll get the folks who say, ‘Oh, it’s really cool to have a Black person,’” Steele said. “I went through that crap when I got elected national chairman.”
“The Republican primary is going to require them to say, and do, and act a certain way,” Steele said. “That’s not necessarily going to be consistent or appreciated by communities of color. Because my bet is they’re going to pivot to trying to appease the Trump wing of the base. They don’t want to lose that. They don’t want to offend them.”
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