Senator Tim Scott, struggling to gain traction less than three months before the first Republican primary ballots are cast, came to the South Side of Chicago on Monday to rebuke the welfare state and the liberal politicians he dismissed as “drug dealers of despair.”
The speech was at New Beginnings Church in the poor neighborhood of Woodlawn. It may have been delivered to Black Chicagoans, but the South Carolina senator’s broadsides — criticizing “the radical left,” the first Black female vice president, Kamala Harris, and “liberal elites” who want a “valueless, faithless, fatherless America where the government becomes God” — were aimed at an audience far away. That audience was Republican voters in the early primary and caucus states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and the donors who have peeled away from his campaign.
His political persona as the “happy warrior” gave way to a chin-out antagonism toward the Black leaders who run the nation’s third-largest city, and the Democratic Party that “would rather lower the bar for people of color than raise the bar on their own leadership.”
Speaking to a largely receptive audience in a church run by a charismatic Republican pastor, Mr. Scott added: “They say they want low-income Americans and people of color to rise, but their actions take us in the opposite direction. The actions say they want us to sit down, shut up and don’t forget to vote as long as we’re voting blue.”
The speech came just minutes before a Scott campaign staff call announcing that the senator’s once-flush campaign would move most of its resources and staff to Iowa, in a last-ditch effort to win the first caucus of the season and rescue the campaign.
“Tim Scott is all in on Iowa,” his campaign manager, Jennifer DeCasper, said in a statement.
Mr. Scott, the first Black Republican senator from the South in more than a century, launched his presidential bid in May, with a roster of prominent Republicans behind him, a $22 million war chest and a message of optimism that separated him from the crowded primary field. To many white Republicans, his message on race, delivered as a son of South Carolina, where slavery was deeply embedded and where the Civil War began, resonated, while many Black Democrats found it naïve and insulting.
“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,” he said early this year as he considered a presidential run. “The story of America is defined by our redemption.”
But from the beginning, even supporters wondered aloud whether optimism and uplift were what Republican voters wanted, after so many years of Donald J. Trump and the rising culture of vengeance in the G.O.P.
This past weekend, Don Schmidt, 78, a retired banker from Hudson, Iowa, put it bluntly to Mr. Scott as the senator campaigned in Cedar Falls before the University of Northern Iowa beat the University of North Dakota in football. Mr. Schmidt told Mr. Scott he was thinking of supporting him or Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor.
“But,” he cautioned, “I don’t know whether you can beat Trump.”
Race has lately been a particularly problematic subject for Mr. Scott. He has at once maintained there is no such thing as systemic racism in the United States, but has also spoken of having a grandfather forced from school in the third grade to pick cotton in the Jim Crow South, and of his own brushes with law enforcement simply because he was driving a new car.
His audience on Monday on the South Side were the grandchildren of the Black workers who left the segregated South during the Great Migration to lean their shoulders into the industrialization of the Upper Midwest. And he seemed to invite the pushback he got after the speech as part of the political theater.
Rodrick Wimberly, a 54-year-old congregant at the New Beginnings Church, was incredulous that Mr. Scott really did not believe that the failings of some Black people were brought on by systemic impediments. He brought up redlining that kept Black Chicagoans out of safer neighborhoods with better schools and lending discrimination that suppressed Black entrepreneurship and homeownership.
“What we see in education, in housing, the wealth gap widening, there is statistical data to show or suggest at the very least there are some issues that are systemic,” Mr. Wimberly told the senator. “It’s not just individual.”
But Mr. Scott held his ground, just as he has since June, when the senator tried to stir up interest in his campaign with a clash on the television show “The View” over an assertion that he didn’t “get” American racism.
When Mr. Wimberly suggested that the failing educational system was an example of the systemic racism holding Black Chicagoans back, Mr. Scott responded: “But who’s running that system? Black people are running that system.”
Such sparring has largely failed to lift his campaign, however. On Saturday, his hometown newspaper, The Post and Courier of Charleston, advised Mr. Scott and other Republican candidates to drop out and endorse Ms. Haley as the candidate best positioned to challenge Mr. Trump in the primaries, which begin in fewer than three months.
Last week, Mr. Scott’s super PAC, Trust in the Mission PAC, or TIM PAC, told donors it would cancel “all of our fall media inventory.”
“We aren’t going to waste our money when the electorate isn’t focused or ready for a Trump alternative,” Rob Collins, a Republican strategist who is a co-chairman of the super PAC, wrote in the blunt memo.
As Bill Brune, 73, a Republican and Army veteran from La Motte, Iowa, put it this weekend: “There’s a lot of good people, but they get no attention. The good guys finish last.”
Republican politicians, including Mr. Trump, who has a glittering high-rise hotel on the Chicago River, have for years used the city as a stand-in for urban decay and violence, though that portrait is at best incomplete. Vivek Ramaswamy, another Republican presidential candidate, came to a different South Side neighborhood three miles from New Beginnings in May to discuss tensions among Black residents over the city’s efforts to accommodate an influx of migrants, many of whom were bused there from the border by Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas — but also to show his willingness to speak with audiences usually ignored by Republican candidates.
Monday’s appearance was, in effect, Mr. Scott’s take on adopting — and amplifying — Mr. Ramaswamy’s flair for the dramatic. Shabazz Muhammad, 51, was released from prison in 2020, after serving 31 years. Since then, he said, he has struggled to find work and housing because of his record and what he called “the social booby traps” in his way. Beyond the candidate’s critique of the welfare state, Mr. Muhammad wanted to know specifically what Mr. Scott wanted to do to help people like him.
Mr. Scott, though sympathetic, was unwavering in his description of social welfare policies as “colossal, crippling, continual failures.”
“Are we tough enough to get better and not bitter?” he asked his audience.
Neil Vigdor contributed reporting from Iowa.