CHARLESTON, S.C. — Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, openly eyeing a pathbreaking run for the Republican presidential nomination, came home Thursday night to the city that started the Civil War to test out themes of unity and forgiveness aimed at the current war in his party — and the divisions roiling the nation at large.
The ultimate question is whether Republican voters who embraced Donald J. Trump’s brand of us-versus-them divisiveness are ready for the themes that Mr. Scott is selling.
His speech Thursday to the Charleston County Republican Party could have been the kind of routine dinner address that all elected officials give, this one honoring Black History Month at a local college. But the television crews and reporters piled on to the risers at The Citadel military college’s alumni center were there to watch what amounted to a soft opening for a White House run by Mr. Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate. And it came only a day after a festive kickoff event for the presidential campaign of Mr. Scott’s friend, political benefactor and fellow South Carolinian, Nikki Haley.
“If you want to understand America, you need to start in Charleston; you need to understand and appreciate the devastation brought upon African Americans,” Mr. Scott counseled. “But if you stop at our original sin, you have not started the story of America, because the story of America is not defined by our original sin. The story of America is defined by our redemption.”
Mr. Scott has obvious political assets to bring to a potentially crowded field: a message of optimism, a disposition that has made him personally popular even with his political opponents, and the historic nature of his potential nomination.
But those assets could prove to be a liability in today’s Republican primary environment, where voters rail against what they see as unfair favoritism toward people of color and where activists may be more interested in anger than optimism. Even in his home state, the third in the Republican nomination process, it is not clear that his political approach is preferable to those of the two pugnacious Floridians expected to compete for the party’s standard, Mr. Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“I don’t see a path for Tim,” said Chip Felkel, a longtime Republican consultant in South Carolina and a critic of Mr. Trump. He said of the mood in the party, “We don’t have a lot of Republicans ready to sing ‘Kumbaya.’”
Mr. Scott appears to understand that race is a major political issue at this fraught moment when the loudest voices in his party are disputing how Black history is taught, race consciousness and the once widely accepted notion that diversity should be a goal, not just happenstance. His own Senate record includes legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime and a major push for police reforms in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
So Mr. Scott has been approaching the issue from both sides, acknowledging the racism that confined his grandparents to the impoverished corners of the Jim Crow South and that still sends him routinely to the shoulders of the road for traffic stops. But he also says, invariably with a smile, that the nation is not racist.
“There is a way for us to unify this country around basic principles that lead us forward and not backward, but we have to quit buying the lie that this is the worst time in American history,” he said on Thursday. “Only if American history started today can that be true.”
There is no question that Mr. Scott, whose speech was announced with the fanfare of a State of the Union address, is seriously considering a run for president. He has a war chest exceeding $22 million, and will travel on Feb. 22 to Iowa, the first nominating state. Two heavy hitters, former Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado and Rob Collins, a former leader of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, signed on this month to lead a new super PAC backing him.
Some see Mr. Scott as a perfect running mate for the two early front-runners for the nomination, Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis, both of whom have picked fights over race from their seats of power. As president, Mr. Trump praised protesters and counterprotesters “on both sides” of a white supremacist march and told four liberal women of color in the House that they should “go back” to the countries they came from, falsely suggesting that they were all born abroad.
Mr. DeSantis is in the middle of a battle in Florida over the future of the Advanced Placement course on African American studies, which he argues strays far to the left of standard history, and has repeatedly taken aim at diversity efforts in his state, including halting funding for diversity, equity and inclusion training at state colleges.
Aides to Mr. Scott adamantly denied that he was running for vice president. He is a proven powerhouse for fund-raising with a message for Republican voters that electability must take precedent after three straight disappointing elections.
Ms. Haley, however, is a problem for Mr. Scott. She declared her presidential candidacy on Tuesday, pitching a similar message that it is time for a change in their party. As governor, Ms. Haley appointed Mr. Scott to the Senate in 2013, and they remain intertwined.
Like Mr. Scott, Ms. Haley is running as an outsider in her white-dominated party, the child of Indian immigrants who sees tolerance in America, not bigotry, and campaigns with a smile, not a scowl.
But Mr. Scott, 57, and Ms. Haley, 51, may be fishing in the same pond for Republican voters who want a less confrontational standard-bearer.
“They’re both just very likable people,” said Maureen McGuinness, a retiree who attended Ms. Haley’s rally on Wednesday. “I’d vote for either one of them.” Pressed to choose, she couldn’t.
Katon Dawson, a former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party and a spokesman for Ms. Haley, conceded the problem. He said Ms. Haley and Mr. Scott would not attack each other; they are too close. She has run tougher races than he has, Mr. Dawson said, and is more tested as a politician, a governor and a foreign policy figure.
But, Mr. Dawson added, “it will cause some confusion” with voters.
Ms. Haley may have a stronger résumé, but Mr. Scott’s unceasing affability has a power all its own. On Thursday night, he worked the room with an easy charm, extending his hand to the 10-year-old Black girl who had given him a lengthy introduction and saying, “I’m Tim Scott.”
He left the podium to discuss the biblical story of Joseph with a white Citadel cadet and member of the Young Republicans, who said earlier in the program that when he reflected on Black history, he remembered how Joseph forgave the brothers who sold him into bondage.
That observation may have rankled some, since the story seemingly has nothing to do with African American history, but Mr. Scott picked up the theme.
“The most natural thing to do in life, it feels like, is the instinct we have to pay it back,” he said. “But the story of Joseph is more powerful than simply getting even. The story of Joseph is about getting ahead.”
Indeed, the senator seemingly has no enemies. Mr. Sellers said he would donate a kidney to the senator, though Mr. Scott would never get his vote.
Chad Connelly, another former chairman of the state Republican Party, said voters — even Republican voters — were “screaming for someone to come in and unify us.”
But for Mr. Scott, the first Black Republican senator from the South since Reconstruction, race is always going to be an issue. Black leaders are particularly sensitive to his party’s castigation of African American history lessons that focus on Black experiences with slavery and oppression.
That is especially true here in Charleston, where colonial riches were built on the rice grown by enslaved people; where until recently, the old market for chattel slavery was a tourist attraction; and where in 2015, a white supremacist slaughtered nine Black parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“History at times is very messy, and it may make people feel a certain kind of way,” said the Rev. Eric Manning, the church’s pastor.
“But that’s history,” he said. “We made mistakes. You have to own the mistakes. You have to acknowledge the mistakes and then learn from the past. My concern is that we’re not learning from our past. We are just trying to cover it up.”
Shortly after the shooting, Mr. Scott told The New York Times that the massacre “has become a blunt force for change in my priorities and responsibilities.” He pressed for tax breaks for businesses that invest in distressed “opportunity zones,” a measure included in the huge tax cuts that passed in 2017. In 2018, he torpedoed the judicial nomination of Thomas A. Farr, a lawyer who defended a North Carolina voter identification law and a partisan gerrymander that a federal court said was drafted to suppress Black votes “with surgical precision.”
In 2020, after George Floyd’s murder, Mr. Scott brokered a Republican police reform bill that would have encouraged police departments to restrict the use of chokeholds and penalized departments that did not require body cameras, among other measures.
But Democrats wanted far more, and the effort ended in 2021.
Last year, President Biden signed legislation championed for nearly a decade by Mr. Scott that made lynching a federal hate crime.
But Mr. Scott, over his lengthy political career, has dwelled far more on his own bootstrap story. He has spoken about his mother extricating herself from an abusive marriage, and his grandparents teaching the lessons of perseverance learned in the cotton fields and hardships of the segregated South.
For some Republicans, those themes are a salve after nearly a decade of Trumpism.
“There’s a need for his message,” said Mark Sanford, the former South Carolina governor whose political comeback crashed after he broke publicly with Mr. Trump. “Whether or not it’s one that’s going be received in this political moment, I really don’t know.”
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