Tim Scott's potential 2024 message tests GOP voter appetite for positivity, strategists say

"If he jumps in, he's gonna do it his way," an aide said.

February 24, 2023, 11:53 AM

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., is laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign, traveling to early states to sell his upbeat vision for a unified country -- and hoping that primary voters are eager to buy it.

Scott in 2013 became his state's first Black senator and the first Black Southern senator in more than a century. He's long been seen as a rising star in his party, more eager to tout the promise of America than throw an elbow, at least at fellow Republicans.

Speaking Wednesday at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa -- historically the first state to hold nominating contests for president -- Scott said he saw a "new American sunrise" that burns brighter than ever before.

"For those of you on the left, you can call me a prop, you can call me a token, you can call me the N-word, you can question my Blackness, you can even call me 'Uncle Tim,'" Scott said. "Just understand: Your words are no match for my evidence. Your pessimism is no match for my history. My existence shows your irrelevance. The truth of my life disproves your lies."

Republican activists and strategists who spoke with ABC News for this story said they hoped there could be an appetite in the 2024 presidential race for someone who could be known for a focus on consensus and policy chops over bombast.

But none could definitively say that would be the case in a GOP transformed by former President Donald Trump, who successfully campaigned in 2016 with a penchant for combative candor and personal attacks that animated the Republican grassroots.

"I hope there is. But I don't know if there is," GOP strategist Bob Heckman, a presidential campaign veteran who is familiar with South Carolina's politics, said when asked if there's an appetite for Scott's brand. "I would love to see a campaign in which there's less negative attacks going back and forth and more of an attempt to unify us behind a series of policies that rebut everything that the Democrats are doing. Whether that can happen, I'm not sure."

Scott is road-testing his message despite that uncertainty, launching a listening tour before making a final decision on a presidential campaign.

"I see 330 million Americans getting back to celebrating our shared blessings again, tolerating our differences again and having each other's backs again," Scott said in Iowa Wednesday.

He will likely continue to focus his ire on President Joe Biden, as he did in Iowa, but he is expected to be unique in his reluctance to knock his fellow conservatives, while 2024 candidates like Trump and Nikki Haley and potential contenders like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are already shadowboxing before the primary is in full swing.

PHOTO: Sen. Tim Scott speaks during a Faith in America Tour event, Feb. 22, 2023, at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
Sen. Tim Scott speaks during a Faith in America Tour event, Feb. 22, 2023, at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall/AP

Over a decade in the Senate, Scott has cultivated a voting record more conservative than the average Senate Republican, according to Heritage Action's report card.

In that time, he's developed a reputation akin to that of a happy warrior due to his emphasis on trying to find bipartisan compromise on thorny issues, including negotiations with Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., on a potential deal on criminal justice reforms -- on-and-off talks that have so far not produced an agreement.

Scott often dovetails his message with his personal story, emphasizing his rise from a childhood in poverty to the U.S. Senate and echoing successful strategies of past presidential campaigns.

"Whenever you can match a great message around a powerful biography, some people get elected president. And I think Tim Scott certainly has the ability to do that," said Alex Conant, a top aide on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's 2016 presidential run.

Conant praised Scott as a skillful orator on the trail but suggested no amount of political talent could overcome the desires of the grassroots if they're hankering for another kind of candidate.

"You can have the best message in the world, but if it doesn't match the mood of the country, it's not going to take off. That's in some ways what happened to the Rubio campaign, where we were running a very positive campaign about the future and our opponent was running the opposite of that," Conant said, referencing Rubio and Trump, who eventually began swapping insults and jabs in 2016 as they sought the Republican nomination. "Presidential politics does tell you what the mood of the country is."

To be sure, Scott is not afraid to throw a punch at Democrats, laying into Biden this week as a political relic.

"I understand the President Biden lives in the past because he's been in Washington for 50 years. But we need new leaders who will lift us up, not tear us down," he said in Iowa.

But some operatives said Scott could appeal to a constituency too small to matter.

"He's a nice guy, and he means well," said Clarendon County, South Carolina, GOP Chair Moye Graham. "I don't know how much of the country is really for that because there's so much hatred out there. ... And Tim seems to be somewhere in the middle. I don't know if there's enough middle ground in there to do it for him."

Scott could also get tripped up by running against another South Carolinian in Haley. Speculation abounds that they could split up the same slice of the vote in South Carolina's key primary.

"I believe Scott and Haley are going to split their vote up. I really don't see either one of them beating Trump, running against Trump," Graham said.

PHOTO: Sen. Tim Scott speaks during a Faith in America Tour event, Feb. 22, 2023, at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
Sen. Tim Scott speaks during a Faith in America Tour event, Feb. 22, 2023, at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall/AP

Other strategists, however, suggested that in a field full of brawlers, Scott could carve out a lane all his own, buoyed by a $22 million war chest from his 2022 Senate bid.

These people said that not going after his fellow Republicans could also help avoid turning off voters of other candidates, who Scott could seek to win over should their chosen contender drop out -- a position that may be unique to him if the rest of the primary field devolves into a free for all.

"He's got more potential for a positive favorable-unfavorable rating than almost anybody else, because I don't think there's anybody who doesn't like him when they meet him," said David Kochel, an Iowa-based GOP strategist who's worked on several campaigns.

And some observers say Scott's policy-focused critiques of the Biden administration can balance a desire for a fighter and resonate with a broad swath of voters who are looking for a departure from Trump's brand of politics -- a group that is splintered but likely makes up a majority of the GOP, given that Trump didn't win most primary voters in 2016 and polls show many of them don't want him to be the 2024 nominee.

"Tim will throw punches when he needs to, because he will call a spade a spade. And as we get into this process, I think you're gonna see a side of Tim Scott begin to flourish in the national scene that we don't see on the Senate floor, because he's going to be very clear and very defined about who the opposition is. And it's not necessarily the other Republicans that are going to be in the race," said Palmetto Family Council President Dave Wilson.

"He's not Donald Trump when it comes to naming names and going after people, I'll phrase it that way," Wilson said.

An aide to Scott, who wasn't authorized to speak publicly, said voters shouldn't expect him to morph into the type of culture warrior he may be running against in a primary.

"I think if he jumps in, he's gonna do it his way and be authentic to himself," this person said. "And if people respond to it, fantastic. But he's not going to try and be something he's not."

ABC News' Mariam Khan contributed to this report.

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