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Tim Scott previews combative presidential vision in Iowa speech

The senator from South Carolina described himself as the antidote to a country beset by misery and hopelessness

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) speaks during a Faith in America tour event at Drake University in Des Moines on Wednesday. (KC McGinnis for The Washington Post)
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DES MOINES — Casting himself as an embodiment of America’s promise, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) took another step toward a likely presidential campaign Wednesday with a formal condemnation of liberal policies and a call for national renewal in the first Republican caucus state.

Working off a teleprompter with new remarks, he described the country as beset by misery and hopelessness, with citizens consuming the “empty calories of anger” and politicians hooking voters on “the drug of victimhood and the narcotic of despair.” He blamed Democrats and liberals, whom he accused of peddling a “blueprint to ruin America,” while calling out President Biden for “living in the past” and accusing him of exploiting the nation’s history of racial oppression for political ends.

Tracking presidential candidates for the 2024 election

Scott offered himself as the antidote.

“Conservatism is my personal proof there is no ceiling in life,” said Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, in the reading room at the Drake University Library. “I can go as high as my character, my education, and my perseverance will take me. I bear witness to that. I testify to that.”

The speech, in its breadth and detail, amounted to an opening presidential-campaign pitch, though his advisers have said he is unlikely to make a final decision until April. On policy, he covered familiar Republican ground, vowing to push antiabortion efforts, to secure the border, to toughen penalties for street crime, and to encourage low taxes and regulation.

But he also promised a new path to those familiar goals, envisioning “a new American sunrise, even brighter than before,” a country where Republicans could “win 49 states and the popular vote.” It was a path, he argued, that first required a frontal assault on Democratic leaders, who have won a majority of votes in every presidential contest since 2004. He said the nation faced a choice between grievance and greatness, failure and faith.

“If you really wanted to ruin America, you would try to convince everybody that it’s more important and more effective to kneel in protest than to kneel in prayer,” Scott said. “If you wanted a blueprint to ruin America, you’d keep doing exactly what Joe Biden has allowed the left to do for the last two years.

Scott has for years made his family story — “from cotton to Congress in one lifetime” — the anchor of his political ambitions. He regularly discusses the struggles of his forefathers in the segregated South, the efforts of his mother to raise him alone, his own academic challenges in high school, and the role that mentors played in giving him the drive and focus to succeed. Rather than only ideological or legislative goals, he has said, his mission is to positively affect the lives of 1 billion people in his lifetime.

More recently, he has sharpened his barbs. In his speech, he cast his critics “on the left” as beyond the pale, referencing some of the more unhinged social media backlash he received after giving the Republican response to Biden’s joint address to Congress in 2021.

“For those of you on the left, you can call me a prop, you can call me a token, you can call me the n-word. You can question my blackness. You can even call me ‘Uncle Tim.’ Just understand, your words are no match for my evidence,” he said Wednesday. “My existence shows your irrelevance. The truth of my life disproves your lies.”

A former county councilman who rose from the South Carolina State House to U.S. Congress, Scott was appointed to the U.S. Senate by then-Gov. Nikki Haley — now a Republican candidate for president — in 2013. He has focused on criminal justice overhaul efforts and finding conservative solutions to improve the lives of the economically disadvantaged.

He helped write a provision of the 2017 tax bill that gave investors tax breaks for investments in distressed communities, and he also helped lead an effort to make lynching a hate crime — a largely symbolic rejection of the epidemic of extrajudicial racial terrorism after the Civil War.

He has also been outspoken against racial insensitivity in his own party. He opposed multiple judicial appointees of President Donald Trump over concerns about the racial insensitivity of their past writings and work, and he supported removing the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina State House grounds.

After Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” at a White nationalist rally in Charlottesville that turned deadly, Scott said Trump “has compromised his moral authority to lead.” He called a video Trump shared on Twitter that included a man yelling, “White power” terrible and inappropriate. Trump removed the video and met with Scott after his Charlottesville comments.

Scott is widely expected to formally enter the presidential campaign in the coming months. Other potential Republican presidential candidates include former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and former vice president Mike Pence, who are also preparing prospective campaigns. Several sitting governors, including Florida’s Ron DeSantis, Virginia’s Glenn Youngkin and New Hampshire’s Chris Sununu, also have been exploring possible campaign announcements.

The lack of a formal announcement has not stopped potential candidates like Scott from doing the daily work of a presidential campaign, as they travel the country, make cable news appearances and attempt to sell recently published books that are designed as voter introductions. Only two major candidates, Trump and Haley, have formally declared campaigns, with months to go before the first Republican primary debate this summer.

If he enters the race, Scott will start with a significant financial advantage over many in the field.

At the end of 2022, he had nearly $22 million in cash in his Senate campaign, which can be transferred to a presidential effort. He also has an additional $13 million in an affiliated super PAC, which has received more than $20 million in donations from Oracle founder Larry Ellison, one of the world’s wealthiest individuals. Much of that money was spent on ads starring Scott during the recent midterms for Republican candidates in key early-voting states such as Iowa, Nevada and Georgia.

At the core of Scott’s message is a rejection of the view that racism continues to define the American experience. He has frequently said in public talks that the original sin of slavery matters less than the redemptive efforts that have happened since. He noted at the beginning of his remarks that he was honored to be speaking near a church where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke.

Nyapal Jock, a single mother of five children who attended Wednesday’s speech, said she loves Scott’s background and that he was raised by a single mother.

“You can be anyone, and tomorrow your life can change overnight,” said Jock, a Black refugee from South Sudan who now lives in Des Moines. “What he’s trying to do is bring America together.”

She said that she hopes he runs for president and that she plans to vote for him if he does.

Dylan Wells contributed to this report.

Presidential candidates for 2024

Three Republicans have officially declared they are running for their party’s 2024 presidential nomination, and plenty of others are making moves. We’re tracking 2024 presidential candidates here.

Republicans: Former president Donald Trump, Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy have announced they are running for president in 2024. Here is The Post’s ranking of the top 10 Republican presidential candidates for 2024.

Democrats: President Biden has yet to officially announce he is running but has said he intends to stand for office again in 2024. Activist and author Marianne Williamson, a long-shot candidate, has said she will seek the Democratic nomination. Here is The Post’s ranking of the top 10 Democratic presidential candidates for 2024.