Tim Scott rarely carries the Iowa race in particular. Nor does a Republican presidential candidate need to.
He was often the only Black person at his state campaign events. The South Carolina senator described himself as the product of early-life mentors who taught him not to be bitter.
When race comes up, he often says that the United States is not fundamentally racist.
“We don’t have Black poverty or white poverty. We have poverty,” he told an all-white audience Thursday in Oskaloosa after being asked about race. He has previously spoken about his difficult upbringing in the South and his late grandfather, who was born in Jim Crow-era South Carolina.
“The brilliance of this country is that we keep moving forward, even though many forces would like us to think that the problem is that someone doesn’t look like you,” Scott said.
Scott, the only Black GOP presidential candidate to campaign aggressively in an early voting state, is betting that his spirited message of personal responsibility, wrapped in the Christian faith he’s comfortable citing, is a good fit for Iowa Republicans who might break away. to former President Donald Magkatatak. For now, Scott and the rest of the White House race remain far behind Trump, and the senator has yet to achieve a breakout moment in the first GOP presidential debate.
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Scott has been criticized by scholars who say his rejection of systemic racism, especially in light of the recent racist murders in Florida, downplays the larger social and political obstacles facing African Americans.
But dozens of Iowa Republicans interviewed over the past few months say his position, common in the 2024 GOP field, echoes more from Scott than anyone else.
“It really meant more from him,” said Mary Rozenboom, a 77-year-old retired hospital employee from Oskaloosa who is white. “He’s saying, ‘This is me. I’m Black. But I made it because I worked hard, and those opportunities remain in America.'”
Recent polls suggest Scott’s support in the state leans 1 in 10 among likely participants in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, four months away.
That’s big behind Trump and slightly behind Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Still, it suggests Scott’s position in Iowa is slightly stronger than nationally, where his support in the latest polls is hovering in the low single digits.
Scott may have distinct advantages among Republican voters on racial issues, political experts say, though his argument may not resonate with a more diverse electorate or in a general election.
Among voters for Republican candidates in the 2022 midterm elections, only 18% said racism is a very serious problem in US society, compared to 61% of voters for Democratic candidates, according to AP VoteCast data.
“He’s a Black man who rejects the idea of systemic racism, which is very popular in Republican circles,” said Christine Matthews, a national political pollster who has worked for Republican candidates. “It absolutely resonates more.”
But Yohuru Williams, founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, that Scott deliberately appealed to voters who wanted to believe that racism was not a serious problem.
“He plays it off and says he’s accomplished all these things because he took advantage of every opportunity and worked hard,” Williams said. “It creates this kind of powerful, but flawed, narrative that it’s the politics of grievance on the left that is solely responsible for economic inequality, for continued police brutality, for inequality in housing.”
“But he’s buying points with the GOP base saying, ‘Finally, someone like me who’s a Black person proving I’m not racist,'” he said.
Scott said that racism is one of the many forms of hatred that exists in the US and that American society has improved over time.
He was asked to comment this summer on the accusation by Joy Behar, a host of the ABC talk show “The View,” that he failed to understand systemic racism.
“I said that America is not a racist country,” he said. “Because it’s not.”
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He achieved his political rise in South Carolina, once the cradle of the Confederacy. As in Iowa, the Republican primary vote there is overwhelmingly white.
When he won a seat in the US House in 2010, Scott became the first Black Republican elected to Congress from South Carolina since the 1890s, a time when white Democrats ousted many Republican officeholders after Reconstruction and disenfranchised Blacks. people through state-sponsored violence, including lynching.
Scott won the House primary by defeating Paul Thurmond, the son of longtime South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, a segregationist who opposed civil rights legislation. Scott was later appointed to the US Senate and re-elected twice to six-year terms.
“I think it is significant, in the history of eternity, that I had the good fortune to be born in the place where the Civil War began, to be elected to the seat once held by Strom Thurmond, to be in a position to have a serious -this conversation that deals with the consequences of race in this country,” he told The Associated Press in 2020.
Bonnie Boyle, leaving an event in June, compared Scott to the late former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Black figures popular with Republicans.
“I don’t think I’m prejudiced, but I know a lot of people, and I don’t think the color of your skin should matter,” said Boyle, who is white. “Tim Scott says you can increase the perception that you’re stuck, and you can do it, and I like that a lot.”
Most Republican presidential candidates deny that the US faces systemic racism. And the study of race in American society has an animated core Republican audience. Several Republican-controlled states have used critical race theory in legislation restricting how race is taught in public schools. GOP lawmakers in several states have also tried to ban or defund diversity and equity programs intended to address disparities in racial representation.
Scott is a key spokesperson for the party and is involved in legislation in Congress aimed at reducing police violence after the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by Minneapolis police in May 2020.
The senator rarely mentions legislative work in Iowa. The law would, among other measures, establish a commission to study race and law enforcement. Republicans and Democrats were unable to reach a compromise package and the legislative efforts fell through.
Already in this campaign, Scott faced unique expectations to respond when Florida issued new state education guidelines on slavery. DeSantis has repeatedly defended the rules, which require teachers to teach students that the enslaved learned skills “can be used for their personal benefit.”
“Real slavery is about tearing families apart, about destroying people and even raping their wives. It’s just devastating,” Scott told reporters in Iowa. “So I hope that every person in our country — and certainly running for president — will appreciate that.”
Scott’s victory did not come by ignoring America’s legacy of slavery and segregation, said Stephen Gilchrist, a Black Republican and chairman and CEO of the South Carolina African American Chamber of Commerce.
“He’s trying to live by the creed of Dr. Martin Luther King, where we shouldn’t be judged by the color of our skin but by the content of our character,” said Gilchrist, who has not endorsed a candidate for 2024. “That -he inspired many of us African American Republicans.”
But Frederick Gooding Jr., a professor of African American studies at Texas Christian University, said more Black Americans worked as hard as Scott but struggled against invisible obstacles.
“He worked hard,” he said. “But it’s not that simple.”