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Eric Felten Opinion: Tim Scott Heads to Iowa

It’s an open question whether the Iowa Democrats’ abysmal job of counting votes in recent caucuses has cost the state the honor of going first in the presidential nominating process, but Sen. Tim Scott is scheduled to kick off a “listening tour” at Drake University in Des Moines on Wednesday. The South Carolina Republican is there to showcase the ideas and ideals that would animate a Tim Scott run at the White House.

If Scott does enter the 2024 race, he’s likely to build his campaign less on particular issues than on his personal experience growing up African American in hardscrabble poverty in the Deep South, and yet finding boundless opportunity in America nonetheless. “From cotton to Congress,” South Carolina political consultant Luke Byars told RealClearPolitics. “His story needs to be told.”

Moreover, says Byars, Scott has proved he has one of the skills essential to any presidential candidate: “He can raise money.”

The senator has already filled a solid war chest. In 2021 and 2022, Scott’s senatorial campaign raised nearly $54 million – for a safe GOP seat. By way of comparison, that’s more than the $51 million frantically raised by Pennsylvania Republican candidate Mehmet Oz, whose campaign was seen as a national referendum on Republicans, as well as a race that might have swung the election.

Scott not only out-raised Oz, he did so even though his 2022 challenger wasn’t even close: Scott beat Democrat Krystle Matthews by a margin of 62 percent to 37 percent. Scott supporters point to the 2022 election; they say it demonstrated an ability and willingness to solicit contributions.

This talent might be useful for more than bragging rights. As of the end of last year, Scott was sitting on nearly $22 million in his Senate campaign coffers. Federal campaign law allows a federal candidate to take money left over from a previous campaign for federal office and transfer it to a different FEC-authorized campaign committee. For example, when Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced she was entering the 2020 presidential contest, she launched her new campaign with over $10 million transferred from her Senate campaign.

It’s not enough to get through a modern presidential primary, but it is a real head-start. Scott raised $4.5 million in South Carolina. But he also showed he could raise funds nationally, collecting over $3 million in California, $2.9 million in Florida and $2.7 million in Texas.

By contrast, fellow South Carolinian Nikki Haley, the second Republican – Donald Trump was the first –to announce a bid for the White House in 2024, has some catching up to do. Although she has fundraising chops of her own – and, as South Carolina governor, is the one who appointed Tim Scott to his seat – her most recent post, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is not conducive to either gathering or storing campaign money.

What of the campaign trail itself? Is Scott ready for the derision Donald Trump routinely hurls at any candidate who dares to challenge him? Even veterans of famously rough-and-tumble South Carolina politics suggested that the GOP electorate is tiring of Trump’s taunts and may be ready for a new standard-bearer: “You don’t have to be a jerk to be an effective leader,” said Byars.

Scott’s advisers believe his sunny disposition will be a pleasant alternative to the downbeat politics of the recent past. Scott himself sounds confident that his own biography is his best advertisement. Nearly a high school dropout, Scott turned his life around, in part, he says, by participating in Boys State, a program run by the American Legion that introduces high school boys and girls in their junior year to the world of politics and government. Scott played football in college, where he majored in political science, launched a successful insurance business, and worked as a county councilman, state legislator, and a member of the House of Representatives.

For those who remember the South Carolina of old, Tim Scott’s political career as a conservative Republican is almost vertigo-inducing. Politico may have termed him “a Tea Party talent scout,” but to win his seat in Congress, Tim Scott had to defeat the son of Strom Thurmond, South Carolina’s most famous 20th century segregationist. And when Haley appointed him to fill the term of retiring Sen. Jim DeMint, Scott not only became the Palmetto State’s first black senator, he took the seat once occupied by notorious Civil War-era racist James Henry Hammond, a man who described slavery as “the greatest of all the great blessings which a kind Providence has bestowed upon our glorious region.”

As a senator, Scott is deeply involved in African American causes, but not in a way that is a familiar one on Capitol Hill. He pursues market solutions to the problem of poverty and champions conservative proposals such as school choice and opportunity zones. He has also grappled with police reform and sponsored legislation requiring federal agencies to participate with Historically Black Colleges and Universities, helping the schools to share in federal educational grant money.

Many wonder whether Tim Scott isn’t already behind the curve in our ever-more compressed presidential campaign cycle. Has he been bumped out of the running by Nikki Haley’s early announcement? Scott and his team don’t seem to think so. They see a value in waiting, and not falling into the trap of delivering the same repetitive stump speech for months to come. Scott does not plan to be in the pack. First, he has to make up his mind to really do it, his advisers say. If so, instead of the long grind, Scott and his team will be looking for the sort of moment one of the senator’s advisers dubs “lightening in a bottle.”

Thanks to the early husbanding of campaign money, he can be patient and wait for the right moment, which is likely to be this summer. But wintertime is where the seeds of presidential ambitions are sewn, which is why Tim Scott is in Iowa this week.

Eric Felten is an investigative correspondent for RealClearInvestigations, reporting on government corruption. He is a former columnist for the Wall Street Journal and previously a Kennedy Fellow at Harvard University. Felten has been published in Washingtonian, People, National Geographic Traveler, The Weekly Standard, Daily Beast, National Review, Spectator USA, and Reader’s Digest. This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

 

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