Tim Scott’s Uphill Battle To Win The Republican Nomination

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A decisive Election Day win last year. A prime speaking slot at a national Republican convention. That elusive “fresh face” that a plurality of GOP voters have told pollsters they want going into next year’s election. 

If you think I’m talking about Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, you’re mistaken. Yes, he checks these boxes, too. And yes, these are objectively good résumé boosters to have if you want to seek — let alone win — the Republican nomination for president. But there’s another name to watch who embodies these same traits: South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, now the fifth major Republican candidate (after former President Donald Trump, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson) to announce their candidacy for president.

Though it’s not particularly common for two candidates from the same state to seek the presidency, there are plenty of reasons for Scott to run. He’s a rising star within the party — given both a marquee speaking slot at the 2020 Republican National Convention and the opportunity to deliver the Republican response to President Biden’s State of the Union in 2021 — who enjoys relative popularity in his own state and is sitting on a campaign war chest of over $21 million. And if Republicans want to build a more diverse voting base, Scott could have broader appeal to voters as a Black man. 

Going into this piece, though, I wrestled with the question of why Scott, the lone Black Senate Republican, first appointed (by Haley) to the chamber in 2012, doesn’t share DeSantis’s presumed front-runner status. He’s got a lot going for him, at least on paper: He’s an unapologetic and unceasingly affable conservative whose Christian faith has informed his politics and personal journey. His vision is relentlessly optimistic, an implicit rebuke of the grievance politics that have taken over the Republican Party — though it’s unclear if the party wants to pivot in his direction. And, unlike DeSantis, Scott has managed the impressive feat of staying on the good side of both the Trumpist and non-Trumpist wings of the party. Scott’s advisers argue that his middle-of-the road disposition makes him more electable — specifically in a general election.

So why isn’t Scott entering the race with the same stature as DeSantis despite his conservative record and political resume? One reason for this dynamic could be because DeSantis has had a chance to pursue an “anti-woke” agenda as Florida’s governor with actual outcomes, whereas it’s harder to make the same kind of name for yourself in the Senate minority. Republican voters might also just want a Trumpian-type candidate that’s not Trump himself, or may rebuke the possibility of a Black party leader. 

These factors could help explain why Scott is just barely on the map as a presidential candidate while DeSantis is largely viewed as Trump’s top opponent. Indeed, not all polls ask about Scott, and when he is discussed, particularly in regards to 2024, Republican voters usually rank him far behind Trump and DeSantis — among a handful of others. In fact, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis of multi-candidate ballot tests that include Trump, Scott has never netted more than 4 percent of the vote share. In multicandidate ballot tests not including Trump, Scott has never received more than 7 percent of the vote share. And in the past month, he’s been overtaken in polls by Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur with no prior political experience.

Tim Scott hasn’t come close to the GOP front-runners

National poll results for a hypothetical 2024 Republican presidential primary from April 18-May 17, 2023

Pollster/Sponsor Dates Trump DeSantis Pence Haley Ramaswamy Scott
Premise May 12-15 57% 22% 6% 3% 1% 0%
Big Village May 10-12 53 21 8 4 5 0
Ipsos/Reuters May 9-15 49 19 5 4 4 1
Morning Consult May 9-11 59 20 6 3 5 2
TIPP/Issues & Insights May 3-5 55 17 6 4 4 2
YouGov/CBS News May 1 58 22 5 4 5 1
Echelon Insights April 25-27 50 23 7 5 4 2
McLaughlin April 24-27 52 16 6 4 4 2
Emerson College Polling Society April 24-25 62 16 7 3 3 0
Beacon Research/Shaw & Company/FOX News April 21-24 53 21 6 4 3 2
Cygnal Political April 18-20 46 26 5 5 2 2
HarrisX/Harris Poll/Harvard CAPS April 18-19 55 20 7 4 2 1
Average 54 20 6 4 4 1

Only the most recent poll conducted by each pollster/sponsor combination is included in order to avoid particularly prolific pollsters from skewing the average. Includes only polls that ask about all six candidates listed above. Excludes internal polls.

Source: Polls

“People just don’t know who he is yet,” Seth Masket, a professor of political science at the University of Denver and director of the Center on American Politics, said of Scott. “I don’t know that he’s necessarily doing anything wrong yet, but someone like DeSantis just has a lot more name recognition right now.” 

Even though it’s still early in the presidential nominating cycle, a lack of notoriety among GOP voters isn’t the only hurdle Scott will need to overcome. And even though his role as a Black candidate in a party that struggles with diversity will certainly set him apart (which I’ll discuss more below), race is also going to be a perennial issue for him. As I’ve written previously, Black Republicans often struggle with acceptance within the party and face challenges in trying to prove their conservative ideological bona fides. And even though Scott has helped downplay racism broadly, he’s also experienced it first-hand and will likely experience it tenfold on a larger, national scale as past Black Republican presidential candidates have. 

That racial contrast might be sharpened, too, against a candidate like Trump, who has long used racial animus to animate the GOP base. Of course, we don’t know how Trump will contend with having at least two rival candidates of color in the race (his attacks so far have focused squarely on DeSantis), but if the former president does lob racist attacks against Scott, it’ll be harder for the senator to respond because Black candidates — and Black Republicans especially — have to walk a tightrope, said Hakeem Jefferson, a FiveThirtyEight contributor and professor of political science at Stanford University. “Scott can’t make white people feel too bad and he can’t go out there talking about how structural racism is baked into the fabric of who we are as a country,” Jefferson said. “He just can’t do that without being blackened in a way that won’t be good for both his candidacy and the Republican Party.”

It’s also not clear whether voters will buy Scott’s message of unity and forgiveness at a time of hyper-political polarization. Indeed, his message of optimism could prove to be an impediment in today’s Republican primary environment, where voters have denounced what they view as unjust favoritism toward people of color and seem more interested in being angry. Those issues aside, Scott has the added hurdle of facing off against another candidate from his home state that’s pitching a similar message of unity. That means the two of them might be fishing in the same pond for Republican voters who want a less confrontational standard-bearer. 

“Scott and Haley are fighting for the same constituency: They both come from the same state, they both represent racial minorities and they have similar stories,” said Henry Olsen, a conservative columnist and political analyst for The Washington Post and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “They’re also fighting to be king or queen of the non-MAGA helm — and might have more competition there soon in [Mike] Pence.”

I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that, yes, both DeSantis and Trump have ties to Florida, too, and are arguably campaigning the same way and for the same base of voters — so the GOP primary electorate could fracture in a number of ways. 

Even so, there are a number of reasons why we shouldn’t pooh-pooh Scott’s candidacy even if he does enter as one of the lesser-known candidates. (There’s a reason, reader, why my colleagues and I predicted last year that Scott might enter the race.) 

But what would it take for him to reach the same level of popularity and fame as his biggest opponents (or soon-to-be opponents)? 

Arguably the best way for Scott to make a name for himself is to simply get in front of GOP audiences in the same way DeSantis has. During his 2018 gubernatorial campaign, DeSantis made the intentional decision to go on conservative media outlets which helped him land Trump’s endorsement and win the GOP primary. But Fox News isn’t the only way for Scott to boost his name recognition; his visits to politically important states like Iowa should help, too, as will participating in the primary debates that’ll begin this summer. 

“Having name recognition is important, certainly when it comes around the time that people start voting, but that’s still very far away,” Masket said. “Right now, it’s more important for him to just be talking to people who are active in the primaries and caucuses and the people who donate money so he can impress on them that he’s serious about this race and a potentially good candidate.”

And polling suggests that Scott is in a decent spot — especially considering how early it is. At least compared with his competitors, he’s not particularly well-known. But the surveys that include him suggest that he is well-liked. Morning Consult’s senator rankings showed that Scott was in the top echelon for the most-highly approved Republican senators with a 53 percent approval rating and a 31 percent disapproval rating as of this winter. Moreover, an average of polls conducted over the course of 2023 found that less than half (48 percent) of Republicans have a clear opinion of Scott, but among that group, he’s fairly popular. That means he has the potential to grow into a well-known and well-liked candidate — unlike some of his competitors.

Scott will also be able to differentiate himself from the rest of the field by continuing the GOP’s crusade against advancing issues of racial justice. During his response to President Biden’s 2021 State of the Union, Scott made waves by boldly declaring that “America is not a racist country.” That’s a message that’ll likely resonate with Republican voters. A December 2021 UMass-Amherst survey, for example, found that while over half of Americans (53 percent) believed that white people in the U.S. have certain advantages and 69 percent were angry that racism exists, the number of Republicans who agreed with these sentiments was decidedly lower. Among Republicans, only 19 percent said that white people enjoy certain benefits due to their race and a little more than half (56 percent) expressed anger about racism’s existence. Indeed, continued attacks on so-called “wokeness” are a surefire way to win over socially conservative voters — and it’s clear that other Republicans in the race see the benefits of this, too. As a Black man, though, Scott might be uniquely equipped to talk about these issues in ways that his opponents are not.

“Some white people are looking for a kind of racial assurance for our nation’s past to make them feel more comfortable,” Jefferson told me. “And who better to deliver that message to them than a person of color who seems empathetic to that? This is a moment that’s uniquely designed for Scott’s candidacy because he can do the kind of race work that white candidates can’t do.” 

Of course, while Scott isn’t the first Black Republican to seek the presidential nomination, his run is still historic given that Black Republicans are few and far between. Scott acknowledged this in his announcement video on Monday, saying that his family’s journey “from cotton to Congress” in one lifetime represented the promise of what America could be. But even before his official entrance into the presidential contest, it’s clear from Scott’s own Senate record that he understands how important race is as a political issue. He helped pass legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime and endorsed a major push for police reform in the wake of George Floyd’s murder (both of which were widely popular among fellow lawmakers). That could help him on the campaign trail since he’ll be able to approach the issue from both sides: through quietly co-signing some of the red meat culture war issues (like attacks on so-called “wokeness”) that other Republicans like Trump and DeSantis will surely bring to the fore, in addition to highlighting his own resume on issues dealing with race.

“Only time will tell, but there’s a large segment of the Republican Party who would like to have an articulate Black conservative as their standard bearer and Tim Scott could be that person,” Olsen said. “At the very least, he could be viewed as that person if he executes well in the next six months.” (Olsen’s use of the word “articulate” to describe a Black candidate is a fairly telling sign of how narrow a tightrope Scott will have to walk in the coming months.)

Of course, none of this makes Scott even close to the favorite for the nomination at this point. But if the party is heading for a crowded primary field next year, he could bring a lot to the table — and there are some baked-in advantages to his candidacy. Even if he doesn’t manage to pick up a ton of steam, though, his nod for the presidency is still historic and could set him up for another run in a few years’ time. 

Mary Radcliffe contributed research.



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