South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott launched his presidential campaign on Monday, offering an optimistic message that his campaign hopes will contrast with the political combativeness that former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have used to dominate the early GOP primary field.
The Senate’s only Black Republican, Mr. Scott kicked off the campaign in his hometown of North Charleston, on the campus of Charleston Southern University, his alma mater and a private school affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. He repeatedly mentioned his Christian faith in his speech, saying, “Amen! Amen! Amen!” and at several points elicited responses from the crowd, who sometimes chanted his name.
But Mr. Scott also offered a stark political choice, saying “our party and our nation are standing at a time for choosing: Victimhood or victory,” adding that Republicans will have to decide between “Grievance or greatness?”
He went on: “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 contrast with Mr. Trump, who has played to the GOP’s most loyal supporters with false claims about widespread fraud during the 2020 presidential election. Governor DeSantis, meanwhile, has pushed Florida to the right by championing contentious new restrictions on abortion and LGBTQ+ rights, and by picking a fight with Disney, one of his state’s most powerful business interests.
Mr. Scott planned to huddle with home-state donors and then begin a two-day campaign swing through Iowa and New Hampshire, which go first in GOP presidential primary voting.
His announcement event featured an opening prayer by 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 Mr. Scott.
Other high-profile GOP senators have already backed Mr. Trump’s third bid for the White House, including Mr. Scott’s South Carolina colleague, Lindsey Graham. Mr. Trump nonetheless struck a conciliatory tone, welcoming Mr. Scott to the race in an online post Monday and noting that the pair worked together on his administration’s signature tax cuts.
A source of strength for Mr. 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 account at the end of his 2022 campaign that he can transfer to his presidential coffers.
Mr. Scott also won reelection in firmly Republican South Carolina – which has an early slot on the GOP presidential primary calendar – by more than 20 points last November. Advisers bet that can make Mr. Scott a serious contender for an early, momentum-generating win.
But Mr. Scott is not the only South Carolinian in the race. The state’s former governor, Nikki Haley, who also once served as Mr. Trump’s former United Nations ambassador, is also running.
Ben LeVan, a business professor at Charleston Southern who attended Monday’s event, said he hadn’t decided whom to support in the GOP primary but didn’t plan to back Mr. Trump.
“I really do hope that we can bring some civility back in politics,” Mr. LeVan said. “That’s one of the nice things about Tim Scott, and quite frankly, Nikki Haley, and some of the other candidates as well. They’re more diplomatic, and that is something that I appreciate.”
Like others in the GOP race, including former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and “Woke, Inc.” author Vivek Ramaswamy, Mr. Scott’s initial task will be finding a way to stand out in a field led by Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis, the latter of whom is expected to announce his own bid as early as this week.
One way Mr. Scott hopes to do that is through a sense of optimism. Mr. Scott often quotes Scripture at his campaign events, weaving his reliance on spiritual guidance into his speeches. He called his travels before the campaign’s official launch the “Faith in America” listening tour.
Mr. Scott said Monday that America’s promise means “you can go as high as our character, our grit, and our talent will take you.”
The Democratic National Committee responded to Mr. Scott’s announcement by dismissing the notion that Mr. Scott offers much of an alternative to Mr. Trump’s policies. DNC chair Jaime Harrison, who ran unsuccessfully for Senate in South Carolina in 2020, released a statement 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, Mr. Scott does indeed align with the more conservative wing of his party. 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 Mr. Scott has pushed the GOP on some policing overhaul measures since the killing of George Floyd, and he has occasionally criticized Mr. Trump’s response to racial tensions. Throughout their disagreements, though, Mr. Scott has maintained a generally cordial relationship with Mr. 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, Mr. 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 said his current term in the Senate, which runs through 2029, would be his last.
Mr. Scott has long rejected the notion that America is inherently racist. He’s also 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.
“Today, I’m living proof that America is the land of opportunity and not a land of oppression,” he said Monday.
This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writer Will Weissert reported from Washington.