GOOSE CREEK, SC — Sen. Tim Scott took his first official dip into the 2024 presidential race last week, launching an exploratory committee and hitting up Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. At first glance, his (unofficial) campaign launch hit some speed bumps: Namely, Scott faced tough questions on abortion, and repeatedly struggled to answer them clearly.
Nonetheless, his home state of South Carolina greeted him with open arms on Friday. A small crowd stood outside of Alex’s Restaurant in Goose Creek with homemade signs welcoming him back to town, and he entered the locally-owned establishment to a packed house. Inside, Scott spent over an hour shaking hands and chatting with locals — a glimpse at the retail politics one can expect will be at the forefront of Scott’s soft-launch.
Just as it has in speeches to Republican audiences for years, Scott’s personal story as a successful Black man who credits conservative values — not “woke” paternalism — with powering his rise went over well.
“I’m voting for Tim Scott, even if he runs on another ticket with somebody else,” 54-year-old Hugh Denton said in South Carolina. “He stood up in the face of being neglected, being put down, being tossed out, being called names because of his color and what he supports. And I think that he’s shown real integrity and real value and real worth of what he can do in the face of criticism — and not just bow to it, but stand for what he stands for until the very end.”
Scott’s team believes his inspiring background is just one of the ways he’ll find a lane, however. They also believe he’s the most traditionally conservative Republican in the 2024 race and backed up by the interest groups that matter most. Gun Owners of America gave him an “A” in the 2022 congressional ratings and he’s earned both a 100% by the National Right to Life and an “A” from the Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America group.
Just as importantly, he has resources that others don’t to tell voters about his personal story and record. His $21 million cash on hand beats out all the competition for now, including former President Donald Trump.
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I’m not yet convinced that Scott can successfully find a lane against big-name, nationally-established opponents like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump, and even former Vice President Mike Pence.
If the test for what makes a good conservative in 2023 was a flawless voting report card, then Scott would indeed pass with flying colors. But that was true of lots of Republicans in 2016 that Trump shoved aside for the nomination.
And it remains an open question whether there’s a path for any one candidate to stand out as the most conservative of the bunch, especially when they’re elbowing each other for the title. Just last week, DeSantis quietly signed a 6-week abortion ban into law, and he has consistently been on the forefront of “anti-woke” fights that rev up the Republican base. Meanwhile, Pence has sought to separate himself early and often on social issues, and has been vocal on his anti-abortion stances in particular.
And while Scott, due to his background, can certainly speak on various red-meat topics in a way that other candidates can’t, that lane isn’t entirely clear either: Nikki Haley, who grew up in a small town in South Carolina as the daughter of immigrants, has been hitting the ground with a similar message.
Scott also lacks his rivals’ name recognition, which puts him at an early disadvantage. His team argues it’s an opportunity: They point out that he’s viewed positively by those who do know him, which offers a chance for him to grow in a way that other candidates won’t have. Underdog campaigns have won contests like Iowa in the past by building gradual buzz with an appealing message and a charismatic messenger. Scott’s war chest will help him aggressively make his pitch, but money hasn’t been everything in prior races either.
Finally, Scott has to convince voters he isn't running for vice president — something he and his team have explicitly pushed back on. His early reluctance to criticize rivals who might end up leading a ticket is in keeping with his usual style, but could bolster those suspicions.
Room for Disagreement
On Friday, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board made the case that Scott’s “optimistic conservatism” could help propel him to the presidency. “If he can make it through the GOP primaries, he could be formidable in a general election as the candidate of national revival for a country that sorely needs it,” the board wrote.
During a recent interview with CBS News, Scott declined to commit to backing Trump should he become the nominee, instead saying that he “plan(s) on being the nominee.” The dodge follows remarks he made in 2021, when he said “of course” he’d support the former president should he decide to run again in 2024.