Can Tim Scott actually win with piles of money, lots of faith and a big bet on Iowa?
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Tim Scott’s announcement here Monday that he’s running for president came mere days before Ron DeSantis is expected to declare his own, far more ballyhooed campaign, joining Donald Trump in what has looked for months like a two-person race for the Republican nomination.
Scott, polling in low single digits, is starting far behind.
But in what's likely to become an even wider field of longshot candidates, the South Carolina senator is plotting a path that many Republican donors and strategists consider credible if Trump or DeSantis falters. His campaign is powered by a sizable war chest and a record of electoral success in his home state that suggests he could appeal to both evangelical Christians and traditional conservatives, two significant constituencies in presidential nominating contests.
“We live in the land where it is possible for a kid raised in poverty by a single mother in a small apartment to one day serve in the People’s House, and maybe even the White House,” Scott, 57, said to the hundreds packed into a gym at his alma mater, Charleston Southern University.
Neither fiercely defensive of the former president, nor sharply critical of him, Scott said in October 2021 that he would “of course” support Trump in a 2024 presidential bid, but continued for months to deflect questions about his own White House ambitions. Senior aides to Scott insist the state’s junior senator is uninterested in making a play for vice president, with one adviser telling POLITICO earlier this year that it was “insulting” to suggest that he would run for president for that reason.
But Scott’s success in this presidential primary is dependent on the Florida governor’s long-anticipated campaign flaming out, and Republican voters deciding it’s time, after all, to move on from Trump. DeSantis is expected to formally enter the race in the coming days on the heels of a flurry of early state travel, but as national polls have shown him on a downward slide.
Others, like Nikki Haley — the former South Carolina governor who appointed Scott to the Senate a decade ago — Vivek Ramaswamy and Asa Hutchinson, launched campaigns earlier this year but also continue to poll in the low single digits.
Ahead of Scott’s announcement, two Republican colleagues, South Dakota Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds, have already endorsed his bid, with Rounds calling Scott “the closest to Ronald Reagan that you're going to see.” Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, gave the opening prayer Monday at Scott’s campaign launch rally. Glen McCall, the Republican National Committeeman from South Carolina, led the pledge ahead of Scott’s speech. Among those in the crowd of supporters was former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, who is serving as Scott’s national campaign co-chair and Larry Ellison, the billionaire founder of Oracle whom Scott from the stage called a “mentor.”
Scott, who frequently talks about his faith, plans to focus heavily on the evangelical Christian vote in Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state where he has held meetings with pastors in recent months, according to his advisers. It’s an approach likely also to be employed by former Vice President Mike Pence, should he decide to run, though the lesser-known Scott has the advantage of having not been bludgeoned by Trump as Pence was after refusing to try to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
Scott’s decision to enter the field was buoyed by his electoral performance in November, when he secured 63 percent of the vote in his re-election campaign — a feat not accomplished in a Senate race here since the 1990 reelection of Sen. Strom Thurmond.
During his 2016 reelection bid, Scott outperformed Trump in the state by nearly 6 percentage points, a sign of his appeal to moderate and swing voters. In contrast, Sen. Lindsey Graham’s vote share in 2020 was just shy of Trump’s 55 percent.
Button and sticker-clad supporters at his Monday morning rally waved red, white and blue pom-poms and paper fans featuring an illustration of Scott, a design created by the teenage daughter of his campaign manager. They chanted “Tim Scott” as he, halfway through the speech, finally announced he was entering the race, and again shortly after when his microphone briefly stopped working.
In interviews with several supporters at the crowded launch event, each shared some personal connection with Scott. A man knew his mother. A woman introduced herself to Scott recently at the airport and was struck by his personability. A 36-year-old man said his father used to work at Scott’s insurance agency, and his family came out Monday to show their support.
Scott graduated from his hometown college in 1988 after growing up here poor, entering local politics just before turning 30 and serving in the state legislature and U.S. House before becoming the South’s first Black senator since Reconstruction.
“I disrupt their narrative,” Scott told the crowd, referring to unnamed members of the “far left” he said have called him a “prop,” a “token” and “the N-word” after opposing President Joe Biden’s policies.
Despite not having high nationwide name recognition, Scott’s star has gradually been on the rise within the Republican Party. In 2021, Scott was tapped to deliver the GOP response to President Joe Biden’s first address to Congress. His Senate voting record is considered conservative, though Scott has worked with Democrats on issues like police reform. He has also, on occasion, used his position as a Black Republican to speak out about racial issues, including criticizing Trump’s comments after the deadly 2017 Charlottesville, Va. white supremacist rally, and his remarks about protesters in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in 2020.
While other candidates, including Trump and DeSantis, are being aided by super PACs that have already raised big money, Scott formally enters the field with nearly $22 million, more campaign cash than any past presidential candidate. By comparison, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren had $14 million and $10 million, respectively, to transfer when they launched their campaigns in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.
Though outside spending groups will almost certainly be a powerful force in the 2024 primary — as they were during the midterm elections — a candidate’s own dollars will go significantly farther as the race continues and advertising prices surge for everyone but candidates, who receive more favorable rates.
Scott has already flexed his ability to buy substantial TV time. On Friday, his campaign placed a $6 million ad buy in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, part of a television ad campaign that will begin this week and run until the first Republican debate in late August.
The spot, which is expected to focus on Scott’s life story, according to a senior campaign official, will be accompanied by radio and digital ads in those states, and will serve as a needed boost to the senator’s name-identification over the coming months. While super PACs supporting Trump and DeSantis have spent more than $10 million each so far in an ongoing television ad war, Scott’s ad campaign amounts to the largest by any candidate so far.
A super PAC supporting Scott’s presidential bid, Trust In the Mission PAC, is being run by former Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Republican strategist Rob Collins. And besides Ellison, Scott in recent days has also seen signs of support from another billionaire: Elon Musk, now the owner of Twitter who has twice promoted videos that Scott has tweeted out, including Monday’s live stream of the campaign launch.
Following his campaign announcement, Scott is meeting with donors in Charleston on Tuesday before heading to Sioux City, Iowa on Wednesday, and to Merrimack, New Hampshire on Thursday. He’ll be back in the Senate the following week — a day job with rigid in-person demands that will restrict Scott’s ability to campaign more than most any candidate in the field, with the exception of DeSantis.
As he spoke to the crowd about his humble beginnings, his life being “proof that America is the land of opportunity, not a land of oppression,” Scott demonstrated his classic speaking style, weaving in and out of Bible verses and urging the audience to respond with “Amen,” as a minister would.
He criticized Biden repeatedly and decried “extreme liberals” for policies on spending, student loan forgiveness and the southern border, among other topics. Scott emphasized the work ethic he learned from his mother, grandfather, and a key mentor he found as an adolescent.
“As president, I will rebuild and restore every rung of the ladder that helped me climb,” Scott pledged, in addition to vowing to “build the wall,” as Trump promised years ago, and to use the military to fight Mexican drug cartels bringing fentanyl into the country. Scott said he will “rebuild a military so lethal and powerful that our adversaries will fear us and our allies will respect us.”
In contrast with Trump, Scott called out Russian President Vladmir Putin and the need for the American military to intervene to curb its global influence, as well as that of China and Iran.
“We will not try to be the world’s police force,” Scott said. “But we will always defend our vital national interests and our people.”
And on education, which Scott described as “the closest thing to magic in America,” he called for “Less C.R.T. and more A-B-Cs,” a reference to critical race theory, and said he would “destroy the liberal lie that America is an evil country.”