NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott launched his presidential campaign on Monday, offering an optimistic and compassionate message he's hoping can contrast the two figures who have used political combativeness to dominate the early GOP primary field: former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Scott, the Senate's only Black Republican, kicked off the campaign in his hometown of North Charleston at Southern University, his alma mater and a private school affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. At one point, he summoned his mother to the stage and gave her flowers and at times offered stirring oratory reminiscent of church, leading the crowed in chants of “Let's Go!”
But Scott also said “our party and our nation are standing at a time for choosing: Victimhood or victory?” adding that Republicans will also have to decide between "Grievance or greatness?"
“I choose freedom and hope and opportunity,” Scott said. He went on to the crowd that, ”We need a president who persuades not just our friends and our base" but seeks “commonsense” solutions and displays “compassion for people who don't agree with us.”
That was a far cry from Trump, who has played to the GOP's most loyal supporters by repeated lies about how he was denied a second term by widespread fraud that did not occur during the 2020 presidential election. DeSantis, meanwhile, has pushed Florida to the right by championing contentious new restrictions on abortion, LGBTQ rights and by seeking to limit the corporate power of Disney, one his state’s most powerful business interests.
Scott, 57, planned to huddle with home-state donors later Monday then begin a whirlwind, two-day campaign swing to Iowa and New Hampshire, which go first in GOP presidential primary voting.
His announcement gathering included an opening prayer by Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Senate Republican, who said, “I think our country is ready to be inspired again.” Republican Sen. Mike Rounds, South Dakota's other senator, has already announced his support for Scott.
A number of high-profile GOP senators have already backed Trump’s third bid for the White House, though, including Scott’s South Carolina colleague, Lindsey Graham. Trump nonetheless struck a conciliatory tone to start, welcoming Scott to the race in an online post Monday and noting that the pair worked together on his administration's signature tax cut.
A source of strength for Scott will be his campaign bank account. He enters the 2024 race with more cash on hand than any other presidential candidate in U.S. history, with $22 million left in his campaign bank account at the end of his 2022 campaign that he can transfer to his presidential coffers.
It’s enough money, his team says, to keep Scott on the air with continuous TV ads in early voting states until the first round of votes next year.
Scott also won reelection in firmly Republican South Carolina -- which voters early on the Republican presidential primary calendar -- by more than 20 points less than six months ago. Advisors bet that can make Scott a serious contender for an early win that could give him momentum heading deeper into the primary race.
But Scott is not the only South Carolina option. The state’s former governor, Nikki Haley, who also once served as Trump’s former United Nations ambassador, formally entered the primary race months ago.
Like others in the GOP race, including former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and “Woke, Inc.” author Vivek Ramaswamy, Scott's initial task will be finding a way to stand out in a field led by Trump and DeSantis, the latter of whom could announce his own bid as early as this week.
One way Scott hopes to do that is his trademark political optimism. With his Christian faith an integral part of his political and personal story, Scott often quotes Scripture at his campaign events, weaving his reliance on spiritual guidance into his stump speech and even bestowing the name “Faith in America” on his pre-launch listening tour.
Scott said Monday that America’s promise means “you can go as high as our character, our grit, and our talent will take you."
“That’s why I’m the candidate the far left fears the most.”
The Democratic National Committee responded to Scott’s announcement by dismissing the notion that Scott offers much of an alternative to Trump’s policies. DNC chair Jamie Harrison, who ran unsuccessfully for Senate in South Carolina in 2020, released a statement Monday calling the senator “a fierce advocate of the MAGA agenda,” a reference to the former president's “Make America Great Again” movement.
On many issues, Scott does indeed align with mainstream GOP positions. He wants to reduce government spending and restrict abortion, saying he would sign a federal law to prohibit abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy if elected president.
But Scott has pushed the party on some policing overhaul measures since the killing of George Floyd, and he has occasionally criticized Trump’s response to racial tensions. Throughout their disagreements, though, Scott has maintained a generally cordial relationship with Trump, saying in his book that the former president “listened intently” to his viewpoints on race-related issues.
When he was appointed to the Senate by then-governor Haley in 2012, Scott became the first Black senator from the South since just after the Civil War. Winning a 2014 special election to serve out the remainder of his term made him the first Black candidate to win a statewide race in South Carolina since the Reconstruction era.
He has long said his current term, which runs through 2029, would be his last.
On Monday, Scott again rejected the notion that the country is inherently racist. He has routinely repudiated the teaching of critical race theory, an academic framework that presents the idea that the nation’s institutions maintain the dominance of white people.
If Scott is successful, he would be the first Black person to win the Republican presidential nomination and the second elected to the presidency, following Barack Obama in 2008.
Other Republicans are still deciding whether to wade into the presidential race, including former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez.
President Joe Biden is seeking reelection and faces only token opposition in the Democratic primary. His party voted to move South Carolina to the leadoff spot for next year's presidential primary calendar.