About 45 minutes into his New Hampshire town hall, Tim Scott said he needed to reveal a secret to the Republican voters who had gathered to hear from the presidential hopeful.
“Listen, this might surprise some of y’all,” Scott told attendees with subtle laughter in his voice. He paused briefly: “I’m Black.”
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The line was met with loud laughter from the mostly white crowd, and it underscored the unique role that Scott faces in the Republican presidential primary ahead of the 2024 election. The 57-year-old senator of South Carolina and erstwhile Donald Trump ally, who filed paperwork on Friday to declare his presidential candidacy ahead of a formal launch event on Monday, hopes to become the first Black politician to win his party’s nomination and go on to defeat Joe Biden in the general election next November.
Scott’s chances of success appear slim, as Trump continues to dominate in national polls thanks to the enduring loyalty of many Republican primary voters. But Scott believes his sunny vision for America’s future can sway a significant number of Republicans who are ready for “new leadership” in the party.
To do that, Scott will need to take on Trump and convince fellow Republicans to abandon the vengeful worldview embraced by the former president in favor of a more positive message about the direction of the country. Relying on a Reagan-esque optimism about the brighter days ahead, Scott has called for a new era of American policy based on “personal responsibility”, deeply rooted in rightwing principles like restricting abortion access and rigorously enforcing border security.
But it remains unclear whether enough Republicans are interested in dumping Trump.
“You cannot lean into ‘the best days ahead of you’ until you deal with the cancer inside of you at the moment,” said Michael Steele, a former chair of the Republican National Committee and a vocal Trump critic. “The way you do that is to take down the guy who’s perpetuating that narrative.”
‘From Cotton to Congress’
As he spoke to the voters at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire earlier this month, Scott pointed to his own family history as an example of America’s promise. He was raised by a single, working mother, and his grandfather dropped out of school in the third grade to pick cotton on a South Carolina farm.
That grandfather lived long enough to see his grandson win a seat in the US House of Representatives, where Scott served one term before being appointed to the Senate in 2013. Scott is currently the only Black Republican serving in the Senate.
“One of the reasons why we say in my family ‘from cotton to Congress in one lifetime’ is because my grandfather had a stubborn faith,” Scott told the New Hampshire voters. “He had faith in God. He had faith in the American people, but he also had faith in the future of this great nation.”
Echoing his message from 2021, when he delivered the Republican response to Biden’s first presidential speech to a joint session of Congress, Scott accused Democrats of turning Americans against each other by bringing attention to systemic oppression.
“When I talk to my friends on the other side of the aisle, particularly the ones who disagree with me vehemently, the one thing I can tell them is that the proof of my life disproves your lies,” Scott said at the town hall. “America is a beautiful country. We are the land of opportunity and not the land of oppression.”
Scott went on to list the benefits of his “opportunity zones” policy, an initiative aimed at directing private investment into America’s economically disadvantaged communities. He encouraged Americans to “take responsibility for yourself” and reject “today’s cultural victimhood”, alluding to the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative that has been criticized on the left as unrealistic and racist.
“My mentor literally taught me that if you take responsibility for yourself, that in that mirror, you see the problem. But in the same mirror, you find the promise,” Scott said at the town hall.
Scott’s upbeat tone cast quite a contrast from Trump, whose presidential campaign thus far has focused on promising “retribution” to his political enemies if he wins the White House next year.
“Everything about Tim Scott is out of the ordinary. He is the exact opposite of Donald Trump, and that’s why he is so intriguing,” said the Republican pollster Frank Luntz. “He is as nice and kind-hearted as Trump is tough and critical.”
Scott’s message was greeted like a breath of fresh air from attendees of his town hall, some of whom said they are looking for the Republican party to break free from Trump’s influence and move in a new direction.
“I really liked the guy. I thought he was very good and forthcoming, and he’s got a great message,” Bruce Nest, a 70-year-old anti-Trump voter from Nashua, said after Scott’s town hall.
Though Scott’s tone is markedly different from Trump’s, the two politicians’ platforms have far more in common. Like Trump, Scott has called for a tougher stance against China and emphasized the importance of preventing migrants from entering the US. On abortion, which will take center stage in the 2024 election because of the supreme court’s decision last year to overturn Roe v Wade, Scott has vowed to sign “the most conservative, pro-life legislation” that could pass Congress. But Scott has refused to specify his preferred timeframe for a potential federal abortion ban.
In the Republican primary, the senator’s tone and temperament alone may be enough to sway some voters.
Nest’s wife, Debra, 70, argued it was “time to give someone else a chance” to lead the Republican party. “We want to pass the baton,” she said. “I’m looking for someone to pass the baton to.”
But Trump’s enduring popularity left some town hall attendees skeptical.
“I think he has a really good backstory, and I think he will connect to a lot of different ethnicities and different cultures of America,” said Robert Plourde, a 59-year-old voter from Loudon. “It remains to be seen whether he has enough traction with the Republican party that really doesn’t know him, I think, nationally right now.”
Stuck at 1%
When Scott formally launches his campaign on Monday, he will join a growing Republican primary field where candidates not named Trump have struggled to break through. The most recent Morning Consult poll showed Scott has drawn the support of just 1% of Republican primary voters across the country.
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There is some evidence to suggest that a crucial share of Republican voters are looking to move on from Trump. One AP/NORC poll taken last month found that nearly half of Republicans do not want Trump to seek re-election, but the same survey showed Trump still enjoys a favorability rating of 68% among Republicans.
Even in Scott’s home state of South Carolina, a Winthrop University survey taken last month found that 7% of Republicans supported the senator, putting him in fourth place. The former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, who served as South Carolina’s governor and appointed Scott to the Senate, outpaced him by 11 points while Trump and Florida governor Ron DeSantis led in the poll.
Scott’s advisers point out that the Iowa caucuses are still nine months away. Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, senior campaign officials noted Scott’s campaign committee has nearly $22m in cash on hand. Scott has also received hefty financial support from some Republican megadonors; last year, the tech billionaire and fellow school choice proponent Larry Ellison poured $15m into a Super Pac aligned with the senator.
Perhaps Scott’s greatest challenge at this early stage will be distinguishing himself from the other Republican presidential candidates. Scott has not made much of an effort thus far to distance himself from Trump on matters of policy, even as he has refused to commit to supporting the former president in the election if he wins the nomination.
Appearing on the Fox News host Sean Hannity’s show in February, Scott was asked what differences there were between his campaign platform and Trump’s.
“Probably not very many at all,” Scott replied. “I’m so thankful that we had President Trump in office. Frankly, the policies that we were able to pass from 2017 to 2020 were monumental.”
Scott’s embrace of his opponent’s record has intensified speculation that this White House bid is simply a ploy to bolster his chances of becoming Trump’s running mate, although the senator has dismissed those suggestions.
“If you’re going to go for it, go for it all,” Scott told reporters last month. “Period.”
With Trump maintaining his massive lead in national polls, Steele is skeptical that Scott or any other Republican candidate can seriously fight for the nomination without directly confronting the former president.
“Unless your name is Donald Trump, you’re running for vice-president,” Steele said. “Until shown otherwise, that they’re willing to take this man down and willing to really press the point that he is wholly incompetent and too politically damaged to be the nominee of the party again, everybody’s running for something other than the current presidential race.”
‘I know it because I’ve lived it’
As Scott continues to insist that he is truly running to win the Republican nomination, his team has pointed to two factors that could help him: his personal story and his evangelical faith. In a video released last month, Scott emphasized those points.
“I was raised by a single mother in poverty. The spoons in our apartment were plastic, not silver,” Scott said in the video. “But we had faith. We put in the work and we had an unwavering belief that we too could live the American dream. I know America is the land of opportunity, not a land of oppression. I know it because I’ve lived it.”
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Scott’s video was filmed at Fort Sumter, the South Carolina military site where the US Civil War began in 1861, which Scott said represented America’s strength and resilience. That message of unity may not resonate with all Republican primary voters; after all, when a group of Trump’s supporters stormed the US Capitol on 6 January 2021, some of them entered the building waving Confederate flags.
“That storyline doesn’t land the same way it used to because a lot of the folks that you’re going to be talking to don’t necessarily look at that as a positive,” Steele said. “They see that as part of the problem, which is why white nationalism has reared its ugly head the way it has.”
Scott’s efforts to connect with white evangelical voters, who make up a substantial portion of the Republican primary electorate, will also likely encounter roadblocks. Evangelical voters represent a core piece of Trump’s base, and they have shown hesitation in abandoning the former president. According to data compiled by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) in March, 62% of white evangelicals held favorable views of Trump.
“I think it’s going to be pretty heavy lifting for Senator Tim Scott, or really any other candidate aside from Donald Trump, to gain a lot of loyalty from white evangelical voters,” said Melissa Deckman, CEO of PRRI.
Scott’s fumbled answers on abortion policy could add to his troubles with that cohort. He remains staunchly anti-abortion, but he has bristled when reporters try to nail down his specific views on enacting a nationwide ban. When asked about his preferred cut-off point for banning the procedure, Scott told NBC News last month: “I’m not going to talk about six or five or seven or 10 [weeks].”
“For the [Republican] base, the positions on abortion really matter,” Deckman said. “And when you have someone like Tim Scott or Nikki Haley sort of waffling on that issue, not trying to pin down the specifics of where they stand, I think it’s going to be harder for them to pull people away from Donald Trump in the primary.”
That task is already proving difficult for Scott. On Monday, he will start finding out if it is, in fact, impossible.