Does Tim Scott have a path to the presidency?

The South Carolina senator and GOP presidential hopeful has a compelling personal story — but that won't be enough to beat Trump.

Sen. Tim Scott.
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It was nearing Christmas 2012, just over a month after Barack Obama had won reelection to the presidency, when Tim Scott was elevated into the U.S. Senate.

Nikki Haley was the one to do it. She was South Carolina’s governor at the time, and Scott was then a 47-year-old congressman from her state. Scott, the first Black Republican elected to Congress from South Carolina in over a century, had been in Washington for four years. He and Haley had served in the state Legislature together.

And when Jim DeMint retired from his U.S. Senate seat in early December 2012, Haley appointed Scott to take his place. Two years later, in 2014, Scott won the seat outright and secured a full six-year term. He was the first Black U.S. senator elected from a Deep South state and just the seventh Black senator in American history.

Now, however, Scott and Haley are both angling to be the Republican nominee for president. Haley has launched her campaign, and Scott — while announcing an exploratory committee Wednesday — said, “I plan on being the nominee.”

Tim Scott, Nikki Haley and Jim DeMint stand at a podium.
Scott speaks to reporters in December 2012 after being introduced by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Jim DeMint. (Tim Dominick/The State/MCT via Getty Images)

Scott was in Iowa this week, and so was Haley. The two erstwhile allies are now foes, at least electorally.

And the reality is that there is only one ticket out of South Carolina available between the two of them. If they are both still in the race a year from now, then the Feb. 24, 2024, South Carolina primary will be a test to see which of them can beat the other and advance. The one who comes in behind the other will likely have to drop out.

At the moment, both of these South Carolina Republicans are currently way behind former President Donald Trump in early polling of GOP primary voters. Trump’s polling average is just under 50%, while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has fallen over the last few weeks to 26%. Haley is only at 4%, and Scott is closer to 1%.

So why should anyone care if Scott is thinking about formally running for president? It’s a legitimate question, but the easiest answer is that it’s still very early in the process and many voters simply don’t yet know who he is. Republican primary voters won’t cast their first ballots until Feb. 5 of next year, still over nine months away.

There’s some evidence that Haley and Scott are gaining traction in their home state, where a recent poll showed Haley at 18% — just behind DeSantis at 20%. Scott, who like DeSantis has yet to formally enter the race, clocked in at 7%.

Ron DeSantis.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at a convocation at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., on Friday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

Scott, like Haley, is also a formidable politician with obvious potential as a national candidate. He has a compelling personal history of growing up in a lower-income household in North Charleston, S.C. He was raised for most of his childhood by a single mom and has spoken about how he was adrift until a Chick-fil-A franchise owner took him under his wing in high school and mentored him.

“I was raised by a single mother in poverty. The spoons in our apartment were plastic, not silver,” Scott said in his video announcing the exploratory committee. “But we had faith. We put in the work, and we had an unwavering belief that we too could live the American dream. I know America is a land of opportunity, not a land of oppression. I know it because I’ve lived it.”

Scott has also talked about how his grandfather was “forced out of school as a third grader to pick cotton, and never learned to read or write.” Scott’s follow-up to that in his stump speech often draws applause. “Our family went from cotton to Congress in one lifetime,” he says.

Scott had a strong relationship with Trump during his presidency, in part because he did not criticize him often. A month after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters, Scott said the former president was “simply not guilty” of provoking violence. “The one person I don’t blame is President Trump,” he said.

But at a few key moments, Scott did not shy away from critiquing Trump. He did so during the racial justice protests of 2020, after George Floyd’s murder. And prior to that, he said Trump’s moral authority had been “compromised” when the president said there were “fine people on both sides” of clashes in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 between white supremacists and counterprotesters. Scott said Trump’s rhetoric was “indefensible.”

Rep. Karen Bass, Tim Scott, and Sen. Cory Booker.
Scott with Rep. Karen Bass and Sen. Cory Booker at Rep. James Clyburn's office in 2021 following a meeting about police reform legislation. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Trump’s White House invited Scott to meet with the president, and Scott used the moment to extract a promise of support from Trump for his “opportunity zone” legislation that is intended to drive private capital to lower-income areas.

Scott has also spoken out on racism at times. In the summer of 2016, he talked about his emotional reactions to the killing of unarmed African Americans by police officers, caught on video. “I shuddered when I heard Eric Garner say, ‘I can’t breathe,’” Scott said. “I wept when I watched Walter Scott turn and run away and get shot and killed from the back. And I broke when I heard the 4-year-old daughter of Philando Castile’s girlfriend tell her mother, ‘It’s OK. I’m right here with you.’”

Scott announced his exploratory committee for president with scathing denunciations of President Biden and the “radical left.” But, of course, he won’t be running against Biden or any Democrats for some time. His competition now is Trump and the rest of the Republican field.

Yet despite Trump’s huge lead, Scott isn’t taking him on directly. There are strong pragmatic and strategic reasons for this, at least for the time being.

Voters tend to dislike intraparty squabbling, and Trump encourages his supporters to take criticism of him as a personal insult against them. So if Scott is introducing himself to voters who are at best vaguely familiar with him, it doesn’t make sense to start off with criticisms of other Republicans.

Donald Trump stands at a podium labeled: Trump, make American great again! 2024
Former President Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., on April 4. (Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

So an implicit rather than explicit contrast with Trump may be the best approach. A best-case scenario for Scott would be for him to gain ground in the polls while targeting only the left, which would force Trump to attack Scott first, rather than vice versa.

However, he has sketched out a foundation in his recent statements that would serve as the starting point for denunciations of Trump. It is a schema, a map. He has yet to actually begin constructing the building, but the plans are there.

“We need mature leadership in a time of crisis,” Scott said in an interview with Heritage Foundation president Kevin Roberts that Scott’s team tweeted out on Tuesday, the day before he announced his exploratory committee.

“We need folks who are not focusing on each other or ourselves as leaders, but people who are focusing on the problem and who it affects the most, and that’s never the leader,” Scott said. “If you’re called to lead, you’re called to serve. And when you don’t serve, you make it about you. That’s always toxic.”

That would seem to be a dig at Trump, who always makes it about himself. And the remark had a moral edge to it. It goes beyond the pragmatic argument that some other Republican hopefuls have made, that the GOP needs a forward-looking candidate who can win. It does more than imply that Trump is a loser because of the last three elections, in which Trump has lost to Biden and also caused massive damage to the GOP ticket around the country.

Tim Scott.
Scott at the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas in November 2022. (Ronda Churchill/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

But a contrast is specific and sharp only if a politician chooses to make it so. Vague platitudes can be explained away with a shrug and a laugh if someone like Scott gains no traction in the GOP primary and finds himself two months from now still polling in the single digits, looking up at Trump. Little would be hurt.

There is ample chatter that Scott and other hopefuls recognize that Trump’s early polling strength represents a firm hold on the GOP base, and that Scott and others are positioning themselves as potential running mates for the inevitable Trump ticket against Biden.

Scott’s advisers have called this “insulting,” but a spokesman for a super-PAC supporting Trump said on Wednesday that Scott was part of a “competition for second place.” And Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has reportedly encouraged Trump to consider Scott as a running mate.

“If Tim runs, I think he’d be a very credible presidential candidate, but when it comes to VP shopping, he should be on everybody’s short list,” Graham told Politico last month.

In the run-up to 2024, it will take some time before we know whether Scott and other Republican candidates for president will attack Trump directly.

The most obvious moment of decision or demarcation along these lines will come in August, when Republicans hold their first primary debate. But back-and-forth sniping will likely ramp up ahead of that, as candidates test out their lines of attack.

Nikki Haley holds a microphone in front of an American flag.
Haley holds a rally in in Gilbert, S.C., on April 6. (Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Haley has gone further out on the limb of attacking Trump. In a campaign memo this week, her campaign manager, Betsy Ankeny, openly criticized Trump for being indicted in New York.

“Donald Trump had a pretty good [first quarter], if you count being indicted as ‘good,’” Ankeny wrote.

“The sensationalized partisan prosecution in Manhattan understandably made Republicans more sympathetic to the former president. It is an outrageous prosecutorial abuse,” Ankeny wrote. “Still, it’s increasingly clear that Trump’s candidacy is more consumed by the grievances of the past and the promise of more drama in the future, rather than a forward-looking vision for the American people.”

But it’s one thing for a staffer, even a senior one, to say this. It’s another for Haley herself to do so.

And while Haley toured Iowa meeting voters this week, she kept her comments largely focused on upbeat conservative talking points paired with partisan attacks on Biden and the Democrats.

But offense is just one part of any successful strategy. In his campaign stops in Iowa and New Hampshire, Scott faced a barrage of questions about abortion and drew some headlines that portrayed his answers as stumbling and uncertain.

He did eventually say he supported a 20-week national ban. But his answers to abortion questions were at times unfocused and rambling.

Scott is undoubtedly trying to find his footing on an issue in major flux. DeSantis is making some GOP primary voters happy with a six-week abortion ban in his home state that he signed Thursday.

But there are flashing danger signs for the GOP that going too far in restricting abortion will have dire political consequences in future elections. The 2022 midterms and a recent election for the state Supreme Court in Wisconsin are two of the most obvious examples.