Senate

Tim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls

Sen. Tim Scott's 2024 prospects are on the rise following his rebuttal to President Biden's address to a joint session of Congress and emergence as the leading GOP voice on police reform efforts.

The buzz surrounding the South Carolina Republican puts him in the mix with several Senate GOP colleagues who are seen as potential White House contenders, including Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.), Ted Cruz (Texas), Josh Hawley (Mo.), Rand Paul (Ky.), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ben Sasse (Neb.).

Scott is making strides in the race for early attention, both nationally and at the state level. He attended an event last month hosted by the state Republican Party in Iowa, which will hold the first caucuses of the 2024 campaign.

And just last week, he was able to introduce himself to the country by delivering the Republican response to Biden's first address to a joint session of Congress, seeming completely at ease during a pressure-packed moment where other presidential hopefuls have stumbled under the glare of the national spotlight.

"The thing that people like most about his speech was that he just came across as so genuine, as a good person. He came across as so likable," said Jim McLaughlin, a Republican strategist and pollster.

"Who the heck ever talks about the rebuttal speech? It's all Republicans are talking about right now. He did himself really, really well," he added. "The attacks from the left against him have just been horrific, but that helps him in a primary."

New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman Steve Stepanek told Fox News after Scott's speech that his delivery was "right on" and "passionate." 

"I'm going to be watching Sen. Scott because I think great things are before him," he predicted.

For now, Scott says his main objective is winning reelection to the Senate in 2022.

In the meantime, the focus on Scott is likely to turn to his negotiations with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) on police reform legislation in response to the death of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), one of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) advisers, noted last week that Scott, the only Black GOP senator, has more authority than any other Senate Republican when it comes to police reform efforts.

"I've never been stopped from driving while Black. He has multiple times," Cornyn said.

Scott told the nation last week that he had "experienced the pain of discrimination." 

"I know what it feels like to be pulled over for no reason. To be followed around a store while I'm shopping," he said.

He later declared, "Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country."

McConnell has empowered Scott to represent the broader GOP conference on police reform legislation and indicated he will support whatever South Carolina colleague signs off on.

Scott and his Democratic counterparts, however, aren't close to a deal, and Democrats are skeptical that he will go much further than what he proposed last year with the Justice Act, which Democrats filibustered. 

For many Republicans, Scott is the perfect antidote to an agenda that aims to address what many Democrats see as entrenched inequality and systemic racism that has perpetuated inequality for decades.

Scott's life story, many Republicans argue, is a powerful example of the opportunity of living in America. 

Scott talked last week about moving in with his illiterate grandfather after his parents divorced and nearly failing out of school before finding a mentor who showed him the wisdom of conservative principles. He mentioned his mentor, Chick-fil-A franchisee John Moniz, who taught him the virtue of enlightened self-interest, which helped Scott take advantage of what he called the "string of opportunities that are only possible here in America."

Republican strategists say Scott has effectively highlighted what they see as the core debate in the 2022 and 2024 elections: Is the country so beset by inequality and crisis that the federal government needs to spend another $4 trillion, as Biden has proposed, to right the ship? Or does the government only need to let schools and businesses reopen, bringing the economy roaring back to life, so that people can find new prosperity on their own? 

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) argued in the 2020 election that the COVID-19 pandemic was a crisis that underscored the unique role of government.

"When there is a crisis of this magnitude, the private sector cannot solve it. Individuals alone, even with courage and sacrifice, are not powerful enough to beat it back. Government is the only force large enough to staunch the bleeding and begin the healing of the nation," he said last year.

Walter Whetsell, a Republican strategist based in South Carolina who worked with Scott early in his political career, said last week's speech showed the nation "the Tim Scott that we have known for the last 10 years." 

He said it's certainly "flattering" that Scott has become a political darling over the past week but predicted the senator wouldn't let it get to his head.

"I do think he is laser-focused, politically at least, on 2022," Whetsell said. "He's not a typical candidate that we work with that gets stars in their eyes real easily. He's not that kind of person."

Whetsell said Scott is a refreshing messenger because he delivers a strong pitch for the importance of valuing the entrepreneurial spirit, self-reliance and fiscal responsibility without hammering divisive culture war themes that have obsessed the conservative media lately but turned off moderate voters and also some traditional GOP allies in corporate America.

"He really attempted, and I think succeeded, in fulfilling the desire by Republicans for some degree of unity around traditional conservative values," he said. "It feels to many people in the hinterlands that it's missing a real leader in that space and he gave lots of people lots of hope in that regard with his message." 

Delivering a nationally televised response to a president's address to a joint session of Congress is far from a public relations slam-dunk.

Former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) famously fell flat during his response to then-President Obama's first address to a joint session of Congress in 2009, getting roasted from both sides, with even Fox News panning his performance as "amateurish."

Rubio was mocked in 2013 when in the midst of his response to Obama's State of the Union address he lunged for an off-camera bottle of water to sooth his parched lips. 

Former President Trump mocked the moment three years later during the 2016 presidential race as a "catastrophe" and reenacted it with a water bottle and a heavy dose of poetic license before a raucous crowd.

Scott by contrast has used his rebuttal to slingshot himself to the front of the national conversation. 

His performance was attacked by some critics on the left who attempted to ridicule him as "Uncle Tim" - an allusion to Harriet Beecher Stowe's fictional character Uncle Tom. But those tactics appeared to backfire. The attacks energized conservatives in Scott's defense and underscored his argument to the nation that "it's backwards to fight discrimination with different types of discrimination."

Twitter later stepped in to block the hashtag #UncleTim from trending, giving conservatives ammo for the latest round of culture wars with the left.

Scott seized on it as well, telling "Fox & Friends" it was a signal that "you cannot step out of your lane according to the liberal elite left."

Outbrain