Tim Scott’s team to donors: Just wait until South Carolina

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With Tim Scott struggling to break through in Iowa and New Hampshire, a top campaign adviser is privately lobbying donors to stick with him until the primary reaches his home state of South Carolina.

“It shouldn’t be lost on us that we’re still going to win the votes in South Carolina,” Mikee Johnson, Scott’s national finance co-chair, told donors in a call on Friday, a recording of which POLITICO obtained. “And this is where we make the difference, right? We make the difference when we win South Carolina.”

The remarks by Johnson, a business leader in South Carolina, highlight the seemingly impossible position Scott and other rivals of former President Donald Trump are in ahead of the first caucuses and primaries — forced after months of campaigning to coax donors and supporters to hang with them as they try to put a dent in Trump’s massive lead.

Scott also addressed donors on the call, two days after a second debate performance that was widely regarded as an improvement over his first, when the South Carolina senator initially struggled to find speaking time. But public polling has continued to show Scott lagging behind a handful of other GOP rivals in a longshot bid to overtake Trump, including in the early nominating states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Scott’s national polling average over the last two weeks puts him at just under 3 percent, according to aggregations by RealClearPolitics, though he is at roughly 7 percent in Iowa and 5 percent in New Hampshire. Scott has fared better in primary polls in South Carolina, though he is still behind his home state rival, former Gov. Nikki Haley, and neck and neck there with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Trump is running far ahead of all of them in the state.

The campaign feels “good about the position” Scott is in, former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, national co-chair of Scott's presidential bid, said on the donor call, “but there’s no question we’re in a battle.”

And the campaign is not abandoning Iowa or New Hampshire. “If you see stuff about national polls, ignore them,” Haslam said. “We're focused on Iowa and New Hampshire, getting our numbers up there, and that's working. It’s not a national campaign at this point.”

Scott on Wednesday will return to Iowa for a town hall outside Des Moines.

But at least some advisers are now placing a special emphasis on Scott’s performance in South Carolina. Reached on Monday, Johnson said in an interview that post-debate, he has been inundated with interest from South Carolina’s most engaged GOP donors wanting to plan fundraisers for Scott, and the senator is slated to dramatically step up events in his home state.

“The South Carolina momentum could really be the swell that changes the tide,” Johnson said.

He acknowledged that “the national polling is obviously frustrating for some” donors, but noted Scott’s campaign has avoided spending money on any national ad buys — something that super PACs for Trump, DeSantis and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum have spent tens of millions on.

To date, a super PAC supporting Scott has spent roughly half a million dollars on national ad buys, compared to nearly $8 million in Iowa and New Hampshire, according to AdImpact.

On the call, Scott touted recent fundraisers in California, including a dinner in San Francisco where donors wore “FTBI” lapel pins that stood for “For Tim Before Iowa.” Scott recalled that he told the donors that evening that his debate preparation included watching World Wrestling Entertainment, “so I could understand the theatrics of Ric Flair and bring it to the stage.”

At another point on the call, Scott supporter Tom Carter, former U.S. ambassador to the International Civil Aviation Organization under Trump, suggested the debates — which the campaigns of lower polling candidates have long argued would help boost their principals — were useless and would merely be clipped to “make more commercials for Jaime Harrison and the DNC.”

“I'm beginning to question the future of these debates and the utility of them, because you are probably one of the best retail campaigners I have ever seen,” Carter said. “I’ve been around presidential politics a long time, but I think the time you spend, senator, out on the campaign trail, that's going to be much more valuable.”

Scott and the other presidential campaigns have yet to announce third-quarter fundraising hauls, reports for which are due mid-month. Johnson said Scott’s financial numbers will show he has “the cash on hand to go the distance,” a nod to Scott’s substantial head start from an existing Senate campaign warchest he pulled from when announcing his presidential run.

His campaign is still petitioning the Republican National Committee to adjust polling requirements ahead of the third debate, set for November, asking the party to place a greater emphasis on early-state, rather than national polls.