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Tim Scott begins presidential campaign, adding to list of Trump challengers

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), right, chats with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), the committee chairman, during a hearing before the Senate Banking Committee in Washington on March 6, 2023.

By Jonathan Weisman and Maya King

Tim Scott, the first Black Republican elected to the Senate from the South since Reconstruction, announced his campaign for president earlier this week, bringing a positive, aspirational message to a growing field of Republicans running as alternatives to former President Donald Trump.

Scott’s decision, which followed a soft rollout in February and the creation of an exploratory committee in April, came this time with a signal to the Republican establishment that he was the candidate to rally around if the party is to stop Trump’s nomination. He was introduced by the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, John Thune of South Dakota, and will immediately begin a $5.5 million advertising blitz in the early nominating states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

“Our party and our nation are standing at a time for choosing: Victimhood or victory?” he said, repeating the choice three times to a packed and boisterous morning rally in the gym of his alma mater, Charleston Southern University. “Grievance or greatness? I choose freedom and hope and opportunity.”

Long considered a rising star in the GOP, Scott, 57, enters the primary field having amassed $22 million in fundraising and having attracted veteran political operatives to work on his behalf.

But his message of hope and inclusion may not resonate among base Republican voters steeped in Trump’s angry demands for vengeance, and the field of Republicans hoping to take the nomination from Trump is about to grow far more crowded.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, are expected to enter the race in the coming days. Chris Sununu, the popular Republican governor of New Hampshire, hinted over the weekend that he was likely to throw his hat in the ring as well, scrambling the battle for the state with the first Republican primary. Mike Pence, Trump’s former vice president, is still mulling a run.

With Trump’s most ardent followers unwilling to abandon their standard-bearer, the former president’s critics worry that more opponents will only split the anti-Trump vote and ensure his victory. Thune’s presence onstage Monday was an acknowledgment of that concern and a call to other elected Republicans to get on board with Scott.

“Tim Scott is the real deal,” Thune proclaimed.

Aides to the Scott campaign said his $22 million war chest was more than any presidential candidate in history. (When DeSantis announces his bid as expected, he will have more money in allied groups, but that kind of political cash does not go as far under campaign finance rules.) The Scott aides also said that the $42 million he has raised since 2022 — much of which has been doled out to other Republicans — had created a depth of loyalties other candidates do not have.

The biggest question looming over Scott’s candidacy may be whether his message of positivity steeped in religiosity can attract enough Republican voters to win in a crowded primary.

One of Scott’s rivals for the nomination is Nikki Haley, a former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina governor who appointed him to his Senate seat in 2012. The two have split allegiances and in-state support since Haley started her run in February, potentially complicating their efforts in a must-win early primary state.

“I bet there’s room for three or four” candidates from South Carolina, Scott told the conservative radio personality Joey Hudson during a February interview.

Scott has consolidated support from several top Republican donors and political consultants while touring Iowa and New Hampshire, key early nominating states, along with South Carolina, his home base. Longtime political operative Rob Collins and former Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, two well-known figures in Republican politics, are the leaders of his affiliated super PAC. Last month, two top South Carolina operatives, Matt Moore and Mark Knoop, were tapped to lead the group’s in-state operations.

Mick Mulvaney, the former South Carolina congressman and acting chief of staff in the Trump White House, was at the announcement, as was Mark Sanford, the disgraced former governor of South Carolina whose political comeback was cut short by his staunch criticism of Trump. Larry Ellison, the billionaire founder of Oracle and a major Republican donor, attended as well.

“I’m a huge fan of Tim Scott,” Sanford said.

Scott was a leading Republican voice on police reform negotiations after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, helping draft Republicans’ proposed legislation that called for narrow reforms but did not ultimately pass. In 2017, he spearheaded the creation of Opportunity Zones, an initiative that offers tax incentives to investors in low-income neighborhoods — many of which are predominantly Black.

It’s not clear, however, whether those efforts will result in added support from Black voters on a national stage. For many Black Democrats, Scott’s race matters little in light of his conservative voting record.

“The same Black people that would normally vote Republican, those are the people that will vote for Tim Scott,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y. “The majority of Black people,” he added, “aren’t going to come out for Tim Scott.”

Scott has already been tested as a presidential candidate. Days after starting his exploratory committee, Scott waffled on questions about whether he would support a federal abortion ban and did not specify the number of weeks at which he would restrict access to the procedure if elected president.

Scott’s entry to the race also comes amid soul-searching for Republicans on who will carry the party’s mantle in 2024. Trump has increased his edge in the polls even as he faces new personal and political controversies, including his indictment by a grand jury in Manhattan and subsequent liability in a sexual assault trial involving columnist E. Jean Carroll. Scott has pointedly declined to criticize Trump head-on, preferring oblique references to his own rectitude.

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