The telltale sign was when he stopped taking questions.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, for years, denied that he had much interest in running for president. He kept a low national profile for most of his time in the Senate, maintaining good relationships on both sides of the aisle alongside a strictly conservative voting record. He maintained a cordial, if not gushing, relationship with President Trump, and worked with him to develop Opportunity Zones to invest in low-income communities. His national profile grew substantially in the wake of the George Floyd protests, when he put forward a Republican-only police reform bill that failed, and then spent years, to no fruition, working with Democratic Sen. Cory Booker to develop a bipartisan police reform measure.
For most of this time, Scott was a senator whom reporters could walk up to outside the Senate subway, bug with questions, and get decent responses. That all changed within the past year. Suddenly, he was flanked by more aides, who would tell reporters to reach out to the office when they dared ask the senator a question.
In short: He was in.
Scott made his presidential campaign official on Monday morning with a launch in North Charleston, South Carolina. That makes him the first, and potentially last, Senate Republican to throw his hat in the ring.
Scott practices an optimistic form of politics; he’s not the type of showy, grievance-based senator who would, say, use his committee chairmanship to investigate Bud Light for doing a social media promotion with a trans person. This much was evident in his campaign kickoff rally.
“Our party and our nation are standing at a time for choosing: Victimhood or victory?” Scott said. “Grievance or greatness? I choose freedom and hope and opportunity.”
Hope, opportunity, aspiration: This is not a message being offered by either of the top two Republican contenders, Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis. It’s not one that senators who declined presidential bids, like Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, or Tom Cotton, were capable of presenting, either. And it’s not one that has a great track record, within Republican primary politics, against Trump’s black hole of grievance politics. But, it’s a worthy experiment, something even Scott’s early backers, like Senate Minority Whip John Thune, openly acknowledge.
“There’s a lane out there,” Thune told the Washington Post at Scott’s launch. “We’re going to figure out how wide that lane is, for somebody who represents an inspirational, aspirational message.”
A happy-smiley-magical-unicorn Republican presidential primary campaign might stand a slim chance against the politics of Trump and DeSantis. But what makes it worth attempting, for Scott, is that it’s extremely easy to finance: Republican donors disgusted by Trump lap up the cheery archetype.
Scott is a prolific, well-connected fundraiser who starts his campaign with $22 million transferred from his Senate account. But the sky’s the limit with outside cash. Centibillionaire Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, who’s already contributed tens of millions of dollars to the fund, is reportedly willing to contribute tens of millions more. The partnership began years ago when Scott visited Ellison on his “remote Lanai Island home.” (Ellison doesn’t just own a home on Lanai, by the way. He effectively owns Lanai.)
There will be much more donor cash to come if DeSantis, who will also formally join the presidential race this week, proves to be a paper tiger as the main alternative to Trump. Only in a situation where DeSantis collapses does Scott have a chance.
But Scott, at the moment, is polling at just about zero. The way Trump greeted Scott into the race Monday was telling of how unthreatened he feels.
“Good luck to Senator Tim Scott in entering the Republican Presidential Primary Race,” Trump wrote on his social media network. “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!”
Scott didn’t mention Trump in his campaign announcement and, according to the Washington Post, “his allies don’t expect him to spend much time talking about the former president, at least in the early days of his campaign.”
Will Scott ever “spend much time talking about the former president”? What is he really in this race for? It’s not just that Scott presents no threat to Trump when he’s polling near zero. He becomes actively helpful to Trump if he polls a little bit higher, because then he will start diluting the anti-Trump vote that DeSantis hopes to consolidate. Trump is aware of this as he welcomes Scott into the race, and might look fondly toward Scott as a potential vice-presidential pick so long as Scott doesn’t “spend much time talking about the former president,” so to speak.
So, again, why is Tim Scott running for president? Well, why not? He has no plans to run for Senate another time. He will have the financial resources in place to test an optimistic message against a field of candidates inveighing against the marketing campaigns of Bud Light or The Walt Disney Company. And if he doesn’t take off, he’ll have done Trump a solid in holding off DeSantis. If he then becomes a running mate pick for Trump to balance the ticket, he’s positioned to be the 2028 Republican presidential nominee.
There are worse ways to spend the next year.