Will he or won't he? Republican Sen. Tim Scott weighs a historic White House bid

If Republican Tim Scott decides to run for president it could be a campaign about giving conservatism a new coat of paint in the post-Donald Trump era.

The 57-year-old South Carolina senator hasn't announced a 2024 White House bid, but he's teased the possibility as one of the latest big-name GOP faces to make a recent pilgrimage to Iowa, the state with the first-in-the-nation Republican caucuses.

While there, he spoke about growing up poor and a child of segregation with a grandfather who dropped out of school in the third grade to pick cotton.

Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, has in the past publicly spoken up about the negative impact of racism in his personal life. But in Iowa he said those circumstances didn't stop him from eventually walking the halls of Congress as a conservative.

"I can go as high as my character, my education, and my perseverance will take me," Scott said during his speech at Drake University. "I bear witness to that. I testify to that."

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David Oman, a former Iowa GOP chair who attended one of the speeches, said segments of the conservative movement are yearning for a more uplifting candidacy that Scott could deliver. 

The senator's biography, he said, contrasts with how Democrats describe the country and reminds him of a past Republican president.

"His message was spot on. I remember the ’70s and ’80s and I could almost say it was Reagan-esque," Oman said. "It's sunny optimism and he has a compelling, humble, personal story, but a very optimistic take on the future of America."

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Scott said rather than compromising, the GOP should be about "winning converts."

And he gave a subtle nod to the 40th president when he told Iowans last week how the conservative "movement can once again carry 49 states and the popular vote." 

"This is what I see," Scott added. "A new American sunrise."

The arch of Scott's life story appeals to a contingency of voters that could be an asset in a primary largely defined by former President Donald Trump running again, Republican strategists say.

"That is going to stand out in this field because a lot of people, especially Trump, are going to be anxious to describe America as though it's a hellscape,"  GOP strategist and political commentator Scott Jennings told USA TODAY.

And unlike many of the other current or prospective contenders Scott isn't bound to defend everything the former president did or said because – he never worked for Trump.

President Donald Trump reacts as Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., during a signing event of an executive order to establish the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council in 2018 at the White House.

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"So if you're Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo or Nikki Haley, and you're out there trying to convince a bunch of Trump supporters to switch, well, why would I buy Coke Zero when I can buy Coke classic," Jennings said. "Scott doesn't have this problem."

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GOP consultant Liz Mair, a former spokeswoman for John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, said Scott is well liked among right-leaning activists, and is recognized as one of the smarter crop of possible candidates.

But she doubts that any "sort of sunny cheery optimism is what sells" with a base that wants to fight liberal America at the moment.

President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Canal Point, Florida in 2019.

"I don't know that they see (Scott) as soft, but I think that the Republican base is pretty well convinced the country's going to hell in a handbasket right now," Mair said. 

The big test for Scott if he runs, she said, will be getting voters to pay attention to him. Many – especially in the right-wing media ecosystem – are ping-ponged between Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, she said.

A Feb. 16 survey by Quinnipiac University showed Scott barely registering at 1% among GOP voters when asked who'd they support for president, behind Haley, Pence and Pompeo.

"Anybody who doesn't have the big broad name ID and appeal of those two, it's going to be tough to build a campaign," Mair said.

Scott's money matches his moves

Coupled with the Iowa visit, Scott's money indicates his political scope is bigger than being South Carolina's junior senator.

Since being appointed to the seat in 2013, he has emerged as a fundraising powerhouse who has attracted mega-donors.

During the 2022 campaign, for instance, Scott hauled in $43.1 million for his reelection, according to Federal Election Commission records.

A Scott-aligned super PAC, Opportunity Matters Fund Action, has almost matched that figure, raising about $37.3 million, according to OpenSecrets.

The group used that war chest to help a handful of Republican Senate candidates during the midterms by dropping millions in those races, in addition to doling out $250,000 in digital ads promoting Scott a month after he coasted to reelection.

The anti-woke Black Republican?

Scott holds many of the traditional conservative views on education, abortion, immigration and taxes, which he touted during the Iowa trip.

And like other GOP presidential contenders, he underscored how the country must resist the "grievance" politics of the left on cultural issues. Yet Scott has spoken about how racism has negatively impacted his life.

Twice he evoked how "woke corporations" appoint themselves as decision-makers, and that "woke prosecutors and anti-cop activists" are responsible for violent crime.

Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., depart the office of Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., following a meeting about police reform legislation on Capitol Hill in 2021.

But Scott has also at different times in his career acknowledged the existence of racial bias, and the need to tackle it through public policy. 

In an op-ed for USA TODAY in 2021, when pursuing bipartisan police reform legislation in the wake of George Floyd's murder, he spoke about being "pulled over for simply having an improper headlight" at age 21 and how the officer called him "boy." 

Stephen Graves, a University of Missouri political science professor in the Black Studies department, said the Scott split narrative is about establishing a brand of conservatism that appeals to white voters who are more moderate on cultural issues.

"Tim Scott really appeases that group of Republicans who understand the times we're in and knowing that they're not going to win future elections in a diversifying culture if they're wedded to that Trump rhetoric," he said.

Thee 2024 Republican field looks to already be the most racially diverse in the party's history with Haley and now 37-year-old entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy in the race. 

Graves said it will be telling to see how the base and potential rivals will react to Scott's dueling views on race.

"They want a Ron DeSantis-type who is going to stick it to the libs, and all the kind of rhetoric that comes along with that," he said. 

"They're looking for a champion."