By Kit Maher, Eva McKend and Greg Krieg, CNN
(CNN) — South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott on Monday formally entered the Republican presidential primary, promising to take on “the radical left” and bring faith and conservative, business-friendly policies to the White House, as he seeks to upend a contest that has so far been dominated by coverage of former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to enter the fray in the coming days.
The most prominent Black figure in the Republican Party, Scott addressed supporters at his alma mater, Charleston Southern University, in his hometown of North Charleston.
“I’m the candidate the far-left fears the most. You see, when I cut your taxes, they called me a prop. When I refunded the police, they called me a token. When I pushed back on President Biden, they even called me the ‘n-word,’” Scott said. “I disrupt their narrative. I threaten their control. The truth of my life disrupts their lies.”
Following the announcement, Scott heads to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina – states he frequented on his “Faith in America” tour in the run-up to his announcement – before returning to the Hawkeye State next week for GOP Sen. Joni Ernst’s annual “Roast and Ride” gathering.
Scott, 57, is no stranger to pathbreaking campaigns. In 2010, he became the first Black Republican elected to the US House of Representatives from South Carolina in more than a century. Years later, after being appointed to his Senate seat (he won a special election to retain the seat), Scott made history as the first Black US Senator from his native South Carolina.
Ahead of his entry into the presidential race, senior campaign officials briefed reporters on their view of the path forward, acknowledging he will need to win over support from Trump and DeSantis, but vowing – in a veiled dig at both – that his candidacy will strike a more optimistic tone and condemn the culture of victimhood and grievance that, as his aides described it, has taken over both parties.
“Our party and our nation are standing at a time for choosing,” Scott said. “Victimhood or victory? Grievance or greatness? I choose freedom and hope and opportunity.”
Trump and his team will avoid going after Tim Scott for now, two sources close to the former president told CNN. The directive from Trump has been to stay away from attacks on the South Carolina senator at the moment.
Last week, the Trump-aligned super PAC, MAGA, Inc., weighed in on Scott’s looming announcement, but used it to level an attack on DeSantis, not Scott.
The former president used that approach on Monday as he wished Scott “good luck” while taking a shot at DeSantis.
“Good luck to Senator Tim Scott in entering the Republican Presidential Primary Race. It is rapidly loading up with lots of people, and Tim is a big step up from Ron DeSanctimonious, who is totally unelectable. I got Opportunity Zones done with Tim, a big deal that has been highly successful. Good luck Tim!,” Trump posted on Truth Social.
The South Carolina senator received a boost on Sunday, less than 24 hours before his kick-off event, when news broke that his colleague Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, planned to endorse him.
“I think he’d be a great candidate. I’m excited about it. I’ve been encouraging him,” Thune previously told CNN. “I think he’s getting a lot of encouragement from his colleagues. He’s really well thought of and respected.”
Cory Gardner, the former Republican senator from Colorado and leader of Scott’s aligned super PAC, also argued that his old colleague posed a unique threat to liberal Democrats.
“I think they’re terrified of him, and he’s right to say that, because he defies every narrative they have,” Gardner said. “And this is exciting for conservatives who believe that they have a candidate who carries their values, can implement their values and do so in a way that will make all Americans proud.”
Focus on early states
A senior campaign official said Scott will continue to invest resources and time in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, as the campaign ramps up.
Though Scott hails from South Carolina, they won’t count on it as a firewall, according to one senior campaign official, who emphasized Scott will have to compete as a top-tier candidate in other early primary and caucus states like New Hampshire and Iowa.
Even before the official launch, Scott revealed plans to pluck from his deep campaign coffers – with millions now transferred over from his Senate account – through a series of big-dollar ad buys in Iowa and New Hampshire.
The initial $5.5 million TV ad buy – including broadcast, cable satellite and radio – will air statewide starting Wednesday and run through the first GOP debate in August.
During the same period, Scott will also launch a seven-figure digital ad campaign.
“The biggest thing going for Tim Scott right now is $22 million in the bank. He is getting ready to spend $6 million in Iowa and New Hampshire that will garner tremendous name ID, and it’s gonna be a key factor that many of the other candidates are not doing right now,” said Dave Wilson, a South Carolina conservative strategist and former president of the Palmetto Family Council.
Though he is only officially entering the race now, Scott has already gotten caught in the churn of the campaign season. Shortly after announcing an exploratory committee last month, he was tripped up by questions over his position on a potential national abortion ban.
After initially sidestepping the matter and refusing to say whether he would back a 15-week ban, Scott told WMUR he would support restrictions beginning at 20 weeks. Days later, though, Scott said in an interview with NBC News that he “would literally sign the most conservative pro-life legislation that they can get through Congress.”
Pressed on what precisely that meant, given he had applauded DeSantis for signing a six-week ban in Florida, Scott demurred – saying it was a decision for the states to make.
“I’m not going to talk about six (weeks) or five or seven or 10,” Scott said.
Road to national political stardom
Back at the senator’s home church near Charleston, there are hundreds of worshipers that see him most weekends.
“I’ve heard him talk about hope and opportunity for 25 years. It’s who he is. It’s a part of his story. And so I don’t think he’s going to change,” said Greg Suratt, founding pastor of Seacoast Church.
“I think a misconception that people might have about him is that his niceness, his humility, translates as weakness. And they don’t know the Tim Scott I know, I would like to kind of see it as an iron fist in a velvet glove,” Suratt added, noting that even people who disagree with his politics tend to like him as an individual.
Scott’s faith and his humble beginnings will be a central theme in his campaign, an aide said. Scott grew up in a single parent household in North Charleston, where his mother worked long hours to keep their family afloat.
“Think about the kid whose grandmother has to open the stove to heat the home in the middle of the winter. I think to myself, it kind of feels like that now,” Scott said at a town hall in New Hampshire this month. “So many people with our energy prices doubling in just the last couple years, are experiencing a crisis similar to the one that I had when I was just a kid.”
On his listening tour, Scott said that between the ages of 7 and 14, he “kind of drifted,” failing world geography, civics, English and Spanish in his freshman year of high school. But through the “tireless” encouragement of his mother and mentor, the late John Moniz, a Chick-fil-A manager, Scott says he was able to graduate from Charleston Southern University. He would eventually open his own insurance agency affiliated with Allstate.
Scott credits Moniz with teaching him that anyone can “succeed beyond their circumstances” if they take responsibility for themselves – a message he repeated in North Charleston.
“John taught me that anyone, from anywhere, at any time, can rise above their wildest expectations and imagination,” Scott said after giving roses to Moniz’s widow and his own mother at the beginning of his speech. “But first, I had to take responsibility for myself. He told me in the most loving way possible to look in the mirror and to blame myself.”
Scott’s political career began in 1995, when he ran in a special election to the Charleston City Council, winning a seat he would keep for nearly 15 years. After one term as a state lawmaker, Scott won a US House seat representing South Carolina’s 1st district.
Fellow presidential candidate and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley then appointed Scott to the US Senate in 2012 to fill a vacancy left by Sen. Jim DeMint’s retirement. He retained the seat in a 2014 special election, was re-elected to a full term in 2016 and later won for a third time last year.
“To every single mom who struggles to make ends meet, who wonders if her efforts are in vain, they are not,” Scott said after being appointed by Haley.
During his time in the Senate, Scott has amassed a strictly conservative voting record, but has also led bipartisan police reform talks alongside New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat.
Those talks have gone on for years now, beginning in the summer of 2020 with then-California Sen. Kamala Harris also involved, but hopes for a comprehensive deal were effectively abandoned in 2021. (The conversations reportedly continue, but there is no legislation currently in the offing.)
In 2017, his “Investing in Opportunity Act,” which had some Democratic support, was included in the controversial Republican tax cut bill. The provision called for the establishment of “Opportunity Zones,” which would create tax incentives for businesses that invested in parts of the country struggling with poverty and stalled economies.
“I was one of the lead authors of the Republican tax reform bill that slashed taxes for families, brought jobs and investment back from overseas, and created my signature legislation, the ‘Opportunity Zones,’ that’s brought billions of dollars into the poorest communities that have been left behind,” Scott said in his speech. “That was just one bill. Imagine what we could do with an entire agenda.”
Still, Democrats in South Carolina welcomed Scott to the race with harsh words about his political record – and an attempt to tie him to the GOP’s far right.
“We know how dangerous Tea Party extremist Tim Scott is,” South Carolina Democratic Party chair Christale Spain said in a statement. “From promising to sign the most conservative abortion ban possible as president, to doubling down on his role as ‘architect’ of the 2017 GOP tax scam that pushed tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy at the expense of working families, Scott has proven himself to be just as MAGA as the rest of the 2024 field.”
Though Scott has expressed more openness to working with Democrats than most Republicans in Washington, he also owns one of the most conservative voting records in Congress. He rarely broke with Trump during the latter’s presidency, though he did criticize Trump’s response to White supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
“What we want to see from our president is clarity and moral authority,” Scott told Vice News at the time. “And that moral authority is compromised.”
Scott largely backed off that line, though, after a meeting with Trump in the White House.
“(Trump) was certainly very clear that the perception that he received on his comments was not exactly what he intended with those comments,” Scott told CBS News.
This story has been updated with additional reporting and reaction.
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CNN’s Alayna Treene and Kate Sullivan contributed to this report.