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Susan Crabtree Opinion: Tim Scott’s Midterm Mission

Sen. Tim Scott is in his element.

It’s late August at the Linn County fairgrounds in Central City, Iowa. Most senators up for reelection, as Scott is this year, are zealously campaigning in their own states just to keep their seats. But Scott, who shot to the top of the GOP stratosphere with his bold response to President Biden’s first State of the Union address last year, is on a glide path to victory and can focus on the bigger picture.

And he’s laser focused.

“It’s Sunday, and my mama wanted me to be a preacher, and so y’all the congregation today,” he tells the crowd attending a fundraiser for Rep. Ashley Hinson, a GOP freshman and former TV anchor running in Iowa’s redrawn 2nd District against fellow local television journalist Liz Mathis.

Even though political analysts are favoring Hinson in the race, Scott warns the crowd not to take the seat for granted. “It’s our responsibility to make sure that this state, her district, is red to the roots,” he tells the audience of GOP supporters before racing around the room in a spirited, rebuttal of Biden’s agenda.

Biden and the Democrats, Scott continued, have produced record inflation and passed the $739 billion in more spending that Scott will only “pour fuel on the fire.”

In the same legislation, Democrats funded 87,000 new IRS agents that will target households with incomes under $200,000, Scott said, referring to an analysis by the non-partisan Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation.

“I saw a sign one time that scared me to death. It said, I-R-S. And I said, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’” he bellows to crowd, which chuckles in response. It’s standard red-meat GOP fare, but Scott, with his ready grin, delivers his lines with such a rare combination of passion and humility, the receptive crowd gives him a standing ovation.

It helps that Scott, the first black senator elected from the old Confederacy since Reconstruction, has a powerful personal story to back up his beliefs. On the stump, he often talks about his struggles growing up in a single-parent household mired in poverty in the Deep South. He took a bumpy road from “victim to victor,” he often says.

At one point, Scott nearly flunked out of high school but credits the tough love and attention of his mother, grandparents, and special mentors – including John Moniz, a Chick-fil-A manager who invested $40,000 in his first insurance business – with helping to straighten him out.

After shedding some negative friends, he started doing better in school, became a football star, won his race for class president, and went on to graduate from college, start his own business, and become the only black Republican to serve in both the House and the Senate.

“We should never apologize for the United States of America,” he told the Iowa crowd. “We are the land of the free and the home of the brave. But before I understood that I was just a freshman in high school lost as a goose in a rainstorm.”

Far from being lost now, Scott’s on a mission. Some might call it a personal crusade.

This election cycle alone, the South Carolina Republican has headlined or served on the host committees for 31 events for GOP candidates and organizations in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Oklahoma, California, Iowa, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. Before Election Day, he scheduled to headline events for all targeted Senate races with trips to Pennsylvania, Nevada, Ohio, North Carolina, and Wisconsin.

With his new star power, Scott has become one of his party’s most prolific fundraisers, but unlike Trump, he hasn’t been sitting on a pile of cash contemplating a White House run – although he will likely have plenty of funds left if he decides to launch a presidential bid.

Trump has yet to make any investments from a $124 million campaign war chest directly on the midterms, although he is reportedly contemplating a raft of ad buys as campaigns head into the final stretch.

Scott has raised more than $70 million this cycle and has spent tens of millions of dollars either directly giving to candidates in hard-dollar donations, which are smaller increments allowed under the law, or through big-dollar donations from his super PAC for independent expenditures that benefit Republican candidates but are not coordinated with their campaigns.

With more spending planned in the final weeks of the campaign, Scott has already doled out $640,500 in hard-dollar donations directly to candidates and party committees, including $260,000 to federal candidates. Related PACs and entities have also given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP’s campaign arm.

Just last week, Opportunities Matters Fund, a new super PAC tied to Scott, cut a $5 million check to the main super PAC linked to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, which is spending millions on advertising in key Senate races this year.

Such a large donation from a single senator who isn’t a member of the elected House or Senate GOP leadership is exceedingly unusual, if not entirely unprecedented, GOP insiders tell RCP.

Besides the $5 million check, Opportunity Matters Fund spent an additional $17 million on behalf of GOP organizations and candidates this cycle in independent expenditures and expects to spend millions more.

McConnell, who has sparred with NRSC chairman Rick Scott over spending and recruitment decisions this year, was so grateful for the windfall that he gave Tim Scott a shout-out during a recent Senate GOP conference lunch, a knowledgeable source told RCP.

Criss-crossing the country for GOP colleagues helps strengthen the party while building a loyal team of surrogates and strong supporters for a future White House run. But Scott would be well-positioned regardless. He’s already viewed as an intriguing 2024 presidential contender if Trump decides not to run, and a likely vice presidential running mate whether Trump jumps into the race or not.

Scott swears, however, that all this frenetic campaigning is a labor of love, and that he believes Republicans will return “fiscal sanity” to the country and help bring it back from the brink of a recession.

“We are at a pivotal moment in this country,” he tells RCP. “I look at the missteps of the Biden administration, and it actually encourages me to be more involved than I would have been.”

In his new memoir, “America: A Redemption Story,” Scott recalled his high school race for class president back in 1982 after one of his teachers, Ms. Edgeworth, tried to channel his gift for gab in a positive direction. While keeping him after school for talking too much in class, she encouraged him to run for student council. He quickly found that running for office gave him an “exhilaration” he previously only had felt as a running back for the football team.

“To this day, I thoroughly enjoy the energy of campaigning,” he wrote. “It’s a whirlwind, but it can also be extremely life-giving.”

Despite the thrill of the game, with so much at stake for his party in the next few weeks, Scott won’t talk 2024 just yet. During remarks at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual convention in Nashville earlier this summer, he appeared to lay some 2024 groundwork by denouncing woke progressivism. The country, he said, is desperate for leadership that doesn’t divide us into little tribes to sell fear and division. Is that a foundation for a winning GOP presidential campaign? Scott demurs.

“It’s certainly a great message for winning the majorities in 2022 in 40-plus days,” he tells RCP with a laugh. “I’m very optimistic that that message of hope and opportunity, for bringing people together, is what we need in his country. I think people are desperate for it – they are thirsty for something fresh and new.”

“As long as it’s authentic and sincere, people will lean into it,” he adds. “So, I’m excited about having a chance to share that optimism that I have about the future, but my thoughts stop at this game and not another one.”

The message is similar to another Scott often conveys. He encourages Americans experiencing setbacks or ruts not to wallow as victims because they could miss a chance to be heroes. It’s a motto he says applies to his own life trajectory, one that could shape his own political future.

For Republicans looking to move beyond Trump and expand the party’s reach, Scott would seem the ideal 2024 Republican reset candidate. But Trump remains the biggest political variable both for Scott and for the GOP as a whole.

Earlier this week, the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman listed Scott and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who served as Trump’s press secretary for two years and is running for Arkansas governor, as Trump’s top potential 2024 running mates.

Certainly, Scott’s uplifting message of hope and unity would be a welcome antidote for Trump’s divisive belligerence. And Scott has a history of taking Trump to task, especially when it comes to clashes over race. Early in Trump’s presidency, Scott garnered mainly praise but also some criticism for saying Trump “compromised” his “moral authority” in blaming “both sides” for the deadly violence that occurred at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville.

More recently, however, he appears to have adopted Ronald Reagan’s “11th Commandment” against speaking ill of fellow Republicans. It’s smart survival politics to avoid even a hint of turmoil with Trump, but Scott is more than just a neutral player. During an interview with Fox News last year, he said he would consider running as Trump’s No. 2 if Trump decides to enter the 2024 contest.

“I think President Trump is still the largest voice in all of politics,” he told RCP last week. “He’s got the swagger, so to speak … and the truth is we were able to get a lot accomplished when he was president … we had a blast.”

“Those were some good years,” he added, rattling off accomplishments, including creating 7 million jobs, two-thirds of which he argued benefited women and minorities the most. He also cited the successful creation of opportunity tax incentive zones in poor areas around the country and record federal funding for Historically Black Colleges, among other realized personal goals.

Trump, Scott said, is “always going to have an outsized impact on the party because he really did shape it during those years from a policy standpoint,” he said, referring to Trump’s policy record as “Reagan-esque” and one “we should always celebrate.”

But did Trump lose some of his moral authority to lead the nation by waiting for hours to call off the mob of supporters who breached the Capitol and rioted inside on Jan. 6?

“I don’t [believe so], honestly,” he tells RCP. “I think the people we should hold responsible are the people who entered the Capitol illegally.”

As someone who heard the footsteps of the mob behind him as he desperately found an escape route, “the one person I didn’t think about blaming was Donald Trump,” he said.

Scott also regularly defends Trump’s immigration policies and efforts to build a border wall. He also doesn’t flinch when defending Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to send two planeloads of illegal immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard last month.

“Twenty-three buses a day of [immigrants] are taken and then dispersed in some of the poorest counties in Texas,” he said. “I’m not sure that it’s worse sending someone to Martha’s Vineyard as opposed to having them all concentrated in the poorest part of Texas.”

Politics is not bean-bag, as the saying goes. However, Scott is still walking a difficult line by selling himself as the hopeful messenger while embracing Trump and slamming Democratic policies. It could get him through a tumultuous GOP primary but end up alienating swing voters in the general election.

Scott insists he’s still willing to work across the aisle, even though his efforts to strike a bipartisan agreement on police reform failed after months of focused effort. He stresses that party leaders need to use the right message and tone to help heal the nation if Republicans manage to wrest back the majority in either chamber or both.

Biden, he recalled, pledged to be the uniter-in-chief but has since used racial issues to divide the country, last year labeling GOP voter reforms “Jim Crow 2.0” and attacking an undefined group of “MAGA Republicans” as “near-fascists.”

“I’m not trying to be hyperbolic, but I think his comments are what’s wrong with politics – it goes to the lowest common denominator of fear,” Scott explained. “Race is such a sensitive and provocative issue – we ought not to use it as a pawn in a political struggle.”

Far from suppressing the black vote, as Biden, the MLB, and Coca-Cola claimed, Republicans’ rewrite of Georgia’s voting laws resulted in record minority turnout in the May primary, Scott argues.

“I take voting very seriously because I remember the stories of my grandfather who could not vote because he was a black man in the segregated South,” he said. “To pretend like what we’re experiencing today [is akin to Jim Crow laws] … that just hurts my heart.”

Instead of overheated partisan rhetoric, Americans are yearning “in the well of our souls” for a fair and compassionate country, Scott tells RCP. “Part of our challenge of bringing this country together is to make sure that when we’re talking about opportunities, we’re talking about it in a way that feels compassionate, that feels fair.”

Healing the nation’s wounds is no easy task for any one politician, but one thing is clear: Tim Scott is far more comfortable as a top GOP communicator now that he’s doing it on his own terms.

A few years ago, Scott’s good friend, former Rep. Trey Gowdy, told journalist Tim Alberta that Scott was sensitive to allegations of being used as a political prop upon arriving on Capitol Hill nearly a decade ago. As a conservative black man, he could withstand the “Uncle Tim” slurs from the left, but with such a dearth of minority GOP voices, he was wary of being used by leadership on the right.

“Tim was like Elvis Presley – leadership wanted him all the time to be the party’s face on television,” Gowdy recalled. “It was incredible pressure on someone brand new to Congress.”

“You earned every bit of capital you have politically,” Gowdy reportedly told him. “Do not let anyone else spend that capital.”

Scott says he’s grateful for Gowdy’s nuanced advice. His good friend also told him not to let anyone hold him back from taking a leading role “when the time was right, and I felt it at my heart.”

“I’m a patient kind of person, and through trial and error, I’ve found my own space,” he told RCP. “I enjoy talking to people. I enjoy sharing the message of hope and opportunity … going to places on behalf of people I believe in, talking about this country that gave me a second chance. It’s like my mom’s dream of me being a pastor is being realized as I am on the stump … it gives me a chance to really talk about the things I believe in.”

Next week, Scott will return to Iowa, the state whose caucuses kick off the presidential nominating calendar. He’ll be there to headline yet another fundraiser – this time to benefit the entire state Republican Party.

A few weeks ago, when Scott was stumping for Hinson, he managed to squeeze in some shout-outs to Iowa’s longest-serving senator, Chuck Grassley, whom he thanked for helping seat more than 200 conservative judges on the federal bench, including three Supreme Court justices during the Trump administration. He also heaped praise on Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds for championing school-choice policies in the state before touting Republicans’ strong pre-pandemic economic record.

“I can’t guarantee you those years are coming back … but if that red wave becomes a red tsunami and it holds on just long enough to get to 2024 …” there will be a far better chance, he pledged.

One supporter gleefully interjected: “Run for president!”

Grinning broadly, Scott replied: “For my homeowners’ association, yes!”

The crowd chuckled at the self-deprecating line, but no one really bought it. It’s clear Scott intends to help lead a GOP revival either this November or in the near future. He’s already painstakingly laying the groundwork, state by state, district by district.

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent.This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.


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