By Gram Slattery and Jason Lange
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Republican U.S. Senator Tim Scott has entered the 2024 presidential race, according to a filing with the U.S. election regulator on Friday, in what amounts to a long-shot bet that a message of unity and optimism can still appeal in a party where many voters are hungry for a bare-knuckled fight.
The impoverished child of a single mother and the only Black Republican in the U.S. Senate, Scott often points to his personal story as proof that America remains a land of promise.
On the campaign trail, his sunny disposition presents a major contrast with other declared and prospective candidates, including former President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who have portrayed the U.S. as a declining nation in need of rescuing from a corrupt, leftist elite.
As a Black conservative, Scott is a rarity in a country where politics are sharply divided along racial lines. Some 92% of Black voters backed Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election, while 55% of white voters backed Trump.
Scott often called out Trump when he was president for making racially insensitive comments and blocked several of his judicial nominees for that reason as well. At the same time, the South Carolina senator has accused Democrats of exploiting racial tensions for partisan gain.
While Scott has described being the victim of racial prejudice, he has repeatedly insisted that America is not a racist country.
Scott enters the race with his work cut out for him.
Only about 2% of Republicans plan to vote for him in the primary, according to polling averages, and his national name recognition remains low. Over half of Republicans plan to vote for Trump and about a fifth favor DeSantis, who is expected to jump into the race in the coming days.
Still, Scott's chances may be stronger than they appear on paper.
He is well-known and liked in his home state of South Carolina, which plays a crucial role in the Republican nominating contest as it is only the third state to cast its ballots.
Scott also has a strong rapport with donors. Larry Ellison, the co-founder of Oracle, has been a consistent backer and is planning to keep his weight behind the senator for the foreseeable future, according to people close to both men.
Andy Sabin, a metals magnate and Republican donor, told Reuters earlier this month he was switching his allegiance to Scott from DeSantis amid concerns about DeSantis' electability.
While Scott has a solidly conservative voting record in the Senate, he has attempted to portray himself as unusually compassionate.
He says he struggled in school until the owner of a fast-food franchise gave him his first job at age 13 and encouraged him to work and study. Before entering politics, Scott worked in insurance and real estate.
Among the policies he has supported are the creation of "opportunity zones" to boost blighted communities and a tax credit program which helps low-income families with children.
In 2020, he was tapped by Republican leaders to develop police-reform legislation, after several high-profile police killings of Black people spurred nationwide protests.
However, bipartisan talks collapsed the following year after Democrats said his proposals were inadequate, and he said they were more interested in scoring political points than reaching a compromise.
On the stump, Scott has shied away from discussing police reform in recent months, and many Republican primary voters are ambivalent or hostile to efforts to increase oversight over law enforcement.
Scott's entrance into the race puts him in direct competition with Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, who launched her campaign in February.
Both South Carolina natives are appealing to a similar pool of donors and elected officials for support, and both candidates likely need to win their home state in order to have a shot at securing the nomination.
(Reporting by Jason Lange and Gram Slattery; Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Scott Malone and Daniel Wallis)