“Tim Scott is going to have a very appealing story and message,” added the Florida Republican, whose 2016 campaign Scott endorsed. “But again, sometimes the environment determines whether that’s what people are looking for. And who knows where we’re going to be a year from now.”
Romney, the party’s 2012 nominee, was more pointed in his assessment of Scott: “The Trump lane, the anti-Trump lane, the more-than MAGA, I don’t think he fits in those things.”
The uncertainty over whether Scott can sell what Romney called “his own vision” sums up his unique place in the potential 2024 field: embodying optimism in a party more prone to elevating partisan fighters and grievance politics. Scott is the unquestionable primary frontrunner among fellow GOP senators who see him harkening back to the Ronald Reagan years — but the party’s base last responded to that tone in significant numbers when Reagan himself was on the ballot.
Still, Scott’s advisers bet that his hopeful authenticity will be his ticket to the Oval Office. Scott, the lone Black Republican in the Senate, talks often about his own life story, as well as his faith. But he’s also doing less and less unscripted talking as he edges closer to a White House campaign launch: Scott recently stopped doing hallway interviews with reporters, often a telling sign of a future presidential candidate looking to more tightly control his message.
While most of his fellow senators expect him to eventually jump in, Scott is keeping his plans close among a small circle of advisers. For now, his colleagues are hesitant to place him in a specific lane — even potential endorsers-in-waiting like Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz).
Schweikert praised Scott but said he isn’t sure if voters are looking for what the senator would offer: “Is there a constituency that wants someone conservative but that still believes in the country?” the Arizonan, asked in an interview.
Trump’s indictment on charges related to a hush-money payment to a porn actress may yet shake up the GOP primary electorate, carving out space for a less polarizing contender. But for the moment, the Republican electorate is split between two men quite focused on grievance and culture wars: Trump and his chief potential primary rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
As Romney put it: “There are a number of voters who are tired of all the sturm und drang and the anger and the vituperative comments. On the other hand, the base is still with folks who are adept at those things.”
Scott would enter the race as a staunch conservative. The right-leaning group Heritage Action currently gives him an 84 percent on its scorecard, higher than the average GOP senator. He also has an “A” rating from Gun Owners of America, a 100 percent rating from National Right to Life and an “A” from Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. He’s known as a defense hawk, most recently opposing a measure that cut off approval for the Iraq War. Scott also backed a Ukraine aid package in May.
While Scott supported bipartisan criminal justice reform, he’s voted against several major bipartisan bills in the past two years, including a $550 billion infrastructure package, a gun safety proposal, same-sex marriage protections and last year’s government funding deal.
The South Carolina Republican is perhaps best known for his work on opportunity zones, a bipartisan proposal included in Republicans’ 2017 tax cut law that offered tax breaks to wealthy individuals who invest in certain designated areas. The program was originally designed to boost low-income communities; Scott is expected to tout it, if he ends up running for president.
Although proponents of the program argue it brings an influx of private investment to economically distressed areas, Democrats and academics have dinged opportunity zones as mainly geared to help places that are already gentrifying.
In addition to opportunity zones, Scott’s a big proponent of expanding charter schools and giving parents public money to allow them to pay for tuition at private schools. He also played a central role in police reform negotiations with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), which fell apart amid disagreements over qualified immunity and other policies. The two have also partnered on anti-lynching legislation, which became law last year, and a law that changed certain sentencing guidelines.
“We’ve worked to do everything from help expand sickle cell anemia funding to working on funding for [historically black colleges or universities],” Booker said. “Obviously, I’ve had frustrations, but in terms of just productivity he’s one of my more productive partners.”
Scott is also getting extra visibility of late as as the top Republican on the Senate Banking Committee. As Congress scrutinizes the failure of Silicon Valley Bank, Scott hasn’t raced to propose any specific policy response.
Instead, he has focused on committee oversight efforts and pressing regulators on what went wrong. He’s blamed the bank’s downfall on the Federal Reserve for supervision lapses and the Biden administration for policies that may have contributed to inflation and rate hikes.
Scott has hosted so-called listening tours in Iowa and South Carolina as he prepares for a potential run, and he’s planning to hold a donor summit in Charleston in April. Even as some Republicans like fellow South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham say that Scott would be a strong vice presidential candidate, his advisers insist that’s not the end goal.
Should he enter the GOP presidential primary, it would be his toughest race to date. Scott’s closest Senate election was in 2016, when he won by about 24 points. Recent 2024 polls show him at only 1 or 2 percent, and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s presidential bid is also a complicating factor. Yet Scott’s also proven a prolific fundraiser, with nearly $22 million cash on hand and strong support from Republican donors like Oracle’s Larry Ellison.
“I think they all got a slim chance,” said Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), who has endorsed Trump. “President Trump and DeSantis are the two guys, they would really have to run into a brick wall for somebody else to nudge them out. Now, anything can happen, but that’s the reason you run.”
Zachary Warmbrodt, Brian Faler, Michael Stratford and Natalie Allison contributed to this report.