Tim Scott’s Trying to Beat Trump as a Nice Guy With Wall Street Backing

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(Bloomberg) -- US Senator Tim Scott formally entered the 2024 presidential race on Monday, launching a long-shot bid with Wall Street support to move Republicans away from the grievance-laced politics of Donald Trump.

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Scott argued he can unify the GOP with a positive, forward-looking message built around a compelling personal story and upbeat demeanor at an event in North Charleston, South Carolina.

“Under Joe Biden, we have become a nation in retreat,” Scott said. “They say opportunity in America is a myth and faith in America is a fraud. But the truth of my life disproves their lies.”

Scott will be counting in part on ties that he’s cultivated to Wall Street through seats on the Senate’s Banking and Finance committees. Financiers including Citadel’s Ken Griffin, Apollo Global Management’s Marc Rowan and Blackstone Inc.’s Stephen Schwarzman all made six-figure donations to his allied super PAC, called the Opportunity Matters Fund, during his 2022 Senate campaign. Representatives of Citadel, Apollo, and Blackstone didn’t respond to requests for comment.

His most important benefactor is Oracle Corp. chair and co-founder Larry Ellison, who has plowed $30 million into the group. Scott recognized Ellison, who attended Monday’s event.

But it isn’t clear that Scott, 57, has a plan to topple his party’s paramount figure — Trump, the former president, who leads GOP primary polling by a wide margin. The senator doesn’t yet show up in an average of primary polls maintained by FiveThirtyEight. Some Republicans believe his campaign is intended more to raise his own political profile, positioning him for a future run or as a potential running mate for Trump.

“You can’t nice your way to the nomination. People are looking for somebody to fight for them,” said Katon Dawson, a former chair of the South Carolina Republican Party, who backs Nikki Haley, the state’s former governor. “You can nice your way to the vice presidency.”

Trump on Monday welcomed Scott to the GOP race, touting his work with the senator and using his entry to jab at his most formidable challenger, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has yet to formally announce a bid.

“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,” Trump wrote on his Truth Social account.

Scott’s campaign insists his optimism sells among Republican voters and will take him to the White House.

“When we’re out talking to people, they tell us what we’re offering isn’t something they’ve heard in a while,” said Jennifer DeCasper, a longtime aide to the senator and his campaign manager.

Scott has so far trained his criticism not on his GOP primary opponents but on Democrats. Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, charges that Democrats are “weaponizing race” to divide the country.

In his speech Monday, Scott did not mention Trump directly by name, instead targeting Biden and Democrats, who he said had attacked him because he was best equipped to challenge the president.

“I’m the candidate the far left fears the most. When I cut your taxes, they called me a prop. When I re-funded the police, they called me a token. When I pushed back on President Biden, they even called me the N-word,” he said.

‘Authentic’ Candidate

Karl Rove, the Republican strategist who advised President George W. Bush, said that Scott’s advantage in the race is authenticity. He said he’s seen the senator speak at two GOP donor events where he was able to “win over audiences.”

“There is a lot of common ground on the issues among the Republican candidates. It’s a question of how you express it,” Rove said. “We will hear a different tone from him. Scott has the chance to make his lane in this race whatever he wants to make it because what he talks about comes from within and he is authentic.”

Scott has so far grounded his fledgling campaign in his personal story. He often refers to his experience growing up poor in North Charleston, where he’s said he failed four classes his freshman year in high school. He’s said he overcame those challenges with help from his mother and a mentor who was a Chick-fil-A owner, eventually graduating from Charleston Southern University and building a successful insurance business.

“The number one thing with him is his story — he’s got a great personal message,” said GOP strategist Rick Davis, who was former Senator John McCain’s campaign manager for his 2008 presidential run.

“He’s running this sorta, let’s all kumbaya, let’s get together campaign, and I think he’s well positioned for certain kinds of states,” Davis added, singling out Iowa, which will be the first state to vote in the GOP primary.

Scott has tried to avoid popular culture-war issues, like DeSantis’s attacks on transgender people and what he calls “woke” liberal politics, or the debate over abortion bans in states including South Carolina.

In visits to early-voting states including Iowa and New Hampshire, he’s instead focused on economic empowerment, highlighting the provision of the 2017 GOP tax overhaul he helped write that created big tax incentives for investment in under-developed “opportunity zones.”

It is Scott’s most noteworthy accomplishment as a senator, a job he’s held since 2013. But critics of the program say much of the financing has gone to luxury developments that would have been built anyway, including projects connected to political insiders.

Scott’s office in March highlighted an analysis by the Economic Innovation Group, a bipartisan research group in Washington, that found the program drew at least $48 billion in investment to about 3,800 communities, most of them distressed.

“Investments in these underserved areas make a huge impact on communities — to the tune of billions of dollars,” he said in a statement.

Scott’s fundraising has been considerable. He raised $43 million for his reelection to the Senate in 2022 and won by nearly 26 points. He has $22 million left over to use for his presidential run, filings show. His top 10 sources of campaign cash were employees of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Blackstone and JPMorgan Chase & Co., illustrating his Wall Street ties.

The Opportunity Matters Fund, meanwhile, raised $37 million last year, including Ellison’s contribution, and ended 2022 with $13 million in the bank.

--With assistance from Dawn Lim, Allison McNeely, Tony Czuczka and Gregory Korte.

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