2024 White House hopeful Tim Scott is calling for unity. But many Republicans want a brawl
FILE PHOTO: U.S. Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) questions witnesses during a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on “Recent Bank Failures and the Federal Regulatory Response” on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 28, 2023. REUTERS/E
By Gram Slattery
MANCHESTER, N.H. (Reuters) – On issues of policy, Tim Scott, the latest Republican to declare he is interested in a 2024 presidential bid, runs largely with the current, following the party line on hot button matters from abortion to immigration.
On issues of style, however, the only Black Republican in the U.S. Senate is swimming against the tide, betting that a relentless focus on unity and optimism can appeal in a party where many voters appear hungry for a bare-knuckled brawl.
That sunny disposition was on display on Thursday at the Red Arrow Diner in Manchester, New Hampshire, a tiny greasy spoon serving French toast and pancakes, where Scott made small talk with patrons, some of whom appeared startled by the sudden arrival of a U.S. senator during breakfast.
“What I found on the campaign trail is that people are starving for an optimistic message,” said Scott, after chatting to voters here, one day after announcing the launch of a presidential exploratory committee.
Voters need to “focus on the progress we’ve made, and why we made that progress,” he added.
In past elections, such rhetoric was unremarkable. President Ronald Reagan, a hero to many conservatives, famously cruised to re-election in 1984 saying, it was “morning in America,” a slogan borrowed by multiple Republicans since.
Yet they are words unlikely to be uttered by leading 2024 Republican contenders now, at least by former President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who have leaned on light-versus-dark imagery in the opening stages of the campaign.
During one of his first campaign events in January, Trump pledged to “stop left-wing radical racists and perverts,” telling his supporters he was “angry.”
DeSantis has gone aggressively after political opponents and others who oppose his policies in recent months. He is currently trying to strip Disney World of local government powers due to its opposition to legislation which restricts teaching on sexual orientation and gender identity in Florida public schools. He has also pushed for changes to the way Black history is taught.
By contrast, ten prominent Scott supporters, including donors and party officials, said his sunny, inclusive demeanor is a major selling point in them being open to voting for him.
But they acknowledged they were unsure if the South Carolina native’s positivity still sold among voters who feel besieged by what they see as a corrupt, leftist elite. Those feelings are particularly acute after Trump’s indictment earlier this month for his alleged role in hush-money payments to two women before the 2016 election.
If Scott runs, his campaign will be an experiment that optimism still sells among Republican voters, they said.
“In a primary setting, where you have mostly Republicans voting, many feel that America is under attack from within and what is required to turn things around are personalities like Donald Trump,” said Maurice Washington, the head of the Charleston County, South Carolina, Republican Party, and a confidante of Scott.
“I know of Republicans on the other hand who feel that it is time to pause, take a deep breath and work more towards healing among all people, and that’s where Senator Scott is. The question is which side – or bubble – within the Republican Party is holding the most votes.”
While Scott is within the conservative mainstream, he has attempted to portray himself as unusually compassionate, drawing on his personal experience as the impoverished child of a single mother.
Among the policies he has supported, which he often highlights, are the creation of “opportunity zones” to boost blighted communities and a tax credit program which helps low-income families with children.
Scott struggled to answer questions in New Hampshire on Thursday when pressed by reporters on his stance on abortion pills. He has backed a ban on abortion after 20 weeks of gestation, a position that divides Americans, opinion polls show.
LONG ROAD AHEAD
At the campaign stop in Manchester, Scott – who is well-known for his skill with face-to-face, “retail politics” – made small talk with patrons on topics as innocuous as baseball.
“You know, the vision he’s putting forward is a positive vision for the future. I hope we see more of that from more candidates,” said Chris Maidment, a New Hampshire Republican county chair, while exiting the cramped diner where Scott spoke.
Maidment jokingly knocked the senator for ordering grits, a dish more common in Scott’s South Carolina than in northern New England.
If Scott formally enters the race, one major challenge will be boosting his name recognition, his supporters acknowledge. As of now, he has no more than 2% support in all major polls. Some potential donors find his positivity appealing but worry that he would struggle against Trump, who dominates headlines.
He will also have to best another South Carolina native, former Governor Nikki Haley, who threw her hat into the ring in February and who shares a similar base of donors, allies and voters.
“The people that are most stressed out about it are the donors,” said Chip Felkel, a South Carolina Republican operative. “Do they cut their contributions in half and split it, do they pick one, or do they keep their powder dry?”
Chris Ager, the chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party and an attendee at the Scott event, said the state’s Republicans “welcome him to the debate.”
But will they buy the sunny vision he is selling?
“Time will tell,” Ager said. “I’ve heard both sides. As party chairman, I want to see unity. I want to see us together. But I also want to see somebody fighting the policies that we disagree with that are coming from the Democrats.”