CHARLESTON, S.C.—Sen. Tim Scott is testing the market for happy warriors in the Republican Party, planning a possible presidential bid rooted in the premise America already is great.
“The story of America is defined by our redemption,” Scott said during a keynote address Thursday at the Charleston County Republican Party’s fifth annual Black History Month gala. “If we the people stand up and command our country and our government, I believe the next American century starts here. It starts now. It starts with you.”
The speech, before a packed ballroom of approximately 250 people on the campus of The Citadel, marked the beginning of the South Carolina Republican’s political experiment and kicked off his “Faith in America” listening tour. Next stop, Iowa.
Scott is headed to Des Moines Wednesday to see how this message plays with grassroots conservatives in the state that hosts the first nominating contest on the GOP’s 2024 calendar. The senator has started building a political team there ahead of the caucuses. His footprint likewise is growing in South Carolina, whose primary, the first in the heavily Republican South, comes after only Iowa and New Hampshire in the party’s voting order.
Scott, 57, is currently looking into hiring national political consultants and has been calling wealthy GOP donors to gauge their interest in a potential White House bid. Earlier this month, he mingled with NFL team owners at Super Bowl LVII. Tech mogul Larry Ellison already is pumping tens of millions of dollars into a Scott-aligned super PAC.
The senator’s Charleston address—delivered the day after former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley joined former President Donald Trump in the Republican primary—centered around his rags-to-political-riches story. Aimless early in life after being raised in poverty by a single mother, Scott eventually graduated from college and started a small insurance firm. He was elected to the Charleston County Council before rising through the ranks of state and federal politics.
Haley appointed the black Republican and North Charleston native to fill a vacant Senate seat in 2013. Last year, Scott was reelected with an overwhelming 63 percent of the vote.
The tone of the senator’s 25-minute speech was largely positive, focusing on unifying themes like economic empowerment, racial equality, public safety, support for the military and improving public education. Scott also celebrated “the goodness” of a United States “not defined by our original sin” of slavery and racism, adding that “the future is incredibly bright.”
But his remarks were not all rosy. Scott complained about overspending in Washington and acknowledged many Americans are struggling because of high inflation and unaffordable gas prices. He blamed President Joe Biden and the Democrats, albeit indirectly.
“People want you to believe what they say, in spite of what you see. They want you to believe that all things economically are perfect,” Scott argued, echoing a common GOP gripe that Biden is purposely mischaracterizing the state of the economy. People were better off, he said, in 2017 and 2018, when Republicans controlled the White House and the Congress: “We brought a single mama’s taxes—like the one that raised me—down by over 70 percent.”
Even with these jabs at the Democrats, Scott’s brand of politics stands out as a sunny throwback to the pre-Trump era—that is, remarkably inoffensive compared with the culturally conservative populist pugilism practiced by the 45th president and another leading contender for the Republican nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Since at least 2015, it’s Trump and candidates like him who have captured the imagination of the GOP base and dominated the party.
Scott might face a certain other hurdle.
Americans are not in the habit of sending bachelors to the White House. Ditto those with no children. President James Buchanan, a Democrat elected in 1856, is the only lifelong bachelor to hold the office. Meanwhile, just five commanders in chief have been childless, the last one being President Warren G. Harding, a Republican, elected in 1920. Scott fits both categories.
Many Scott supporters in South Carolina are convinced he can make headway in the race anyway. They don’t just plan to back the senator if he runs for president; they are actively encouraging him to mount a campaign.
“He could do the job,” said Keith Waring, 67, a financial advisor who has known Scott for several years and showed up Thursday to hear him speak.
Karen Jones, a 53-year-old educator also in the audience, said she would “definitely” like Scott to join the race and would support him. “It was very inspiring,” Jones added. “It made me feel like I have a sense of hope now.”