Tim Scott posts some of the highest favorability ratings in the presidential primary field. He’s well liked by donors and the conservative media, and with Ron DeSantis sputtering, he appears to have an opening.
There’s just one problem: so far the GOP electorate ain’t buying it.
In interviews with a dozen strategists and pollsters, terms like “affable,”and “optimistic” came up repeatedly.
The description that did not come up often was “president.”
“I don’t think there’s anybody who doesn’t think he’s a nice guy,” Ryan Rhodes, a Republican strategist in Iowa, said of Scott. “But I don’t believe the primary electorate believes that we can just have somebody that’s going to get along with the other side in Washington.”
Scott’s failures to gain traction reveal that even the most accomplished and well-liked candidate entering at the right point in his career may not be enough. Sterling credentials don’t seem to be enough to take on the twice-indicted Donald Trump.
Rhodes, who served as Iowa campaign director for Ben Carson’s 2016 presidential run, said the field is so calcified that the Scott campaign will likely have to turn out some 5,000 or 10,000 new voters in the first-in-the-nation caucus state to be seen as viable. Making matters even harder: he’d have to do so without alienating Trump or DeSantis voters.
Scott’s advisers say their candidate is winning over voters with his positive message and is buoyed by groundwork he is laying in Iowa. He has made repeated trips to the state to court the evangelical-leaning electorate there.
His strategy relies on his trademark upbeat campaign style and his message of unity. He leans heavily into his biography, reminding voters his family went from “cotton to Congress,” in one lifetime, underscoring his assertion that America is not a racist nation.
“The truth of my life disproves the lies of the radical forces that believe that we should be in constant conflict with each other,” Scott said at the Family Leadership Summit on Friday.
As a Black person who overcame adversity and championed Republican principles, Scott is appealing to many Republicans. But not, some GOP operatives say, as a candidate to vote for so much as a leader who can blunt criticism that the GOP has devolved into a white grievance party.
“He serves as a bulwark against these attacks,” said Mike Madrid, a longtime Republican strategist and co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project.
The Iowa GOP has a long history of flirting with Black Republican presidential candidates — and not voting for them.
Carson, who served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Trump administration, briefly topped Iowa polls in 2015. At his peak, he reached 28 percent that October, nine points ahead of Donald Trump. But he eventually came in a distant fourth before dropping out. Herman Cain, the former head of Godfather Pizza, topped a Des Moines Register poll in 2011 with 23 percent, narrowly edging out eventual GOP nominee Mitt Romney who notched 22 percent in that poll. Two months after that survey, Cain suspended his campaign amid sagging poll numbers. And 2000 former diplomat Alan Keyes finished third in the Iowa Caucus, behind the winner, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
Scott has a more robust political resume than any of those candidates. He’s been in the Senate since 2013 and in his first House race, he defeated the son of Strom Thurmond, the infamous segregationist. He cruised to reelection in his Senate race last cycle by 26 points.
Still, Scott is polling in single digits. He raised $5.8 million in the second quarter, a middle-of-the-pack haul that didn’t match his reputation as a prodigious fundraiser.
Even he appears to recognize he isn’t entirely catching on. At the Family Leadership Summit, he made a nod to a POLITICO report that top Republican donors are increasingly disillusioned with DeSantis’ ability to mount a credible challenge to Trump: “I’m glad to hear they’re all flocking to me,” he quipped on stage. “I wish they would go ahead and write the check too, because we haven’t seen that yet.”
While a light disposition can go a long way to winning over voters, Rhodes, who is not affiliated with any campaign this cycle, said he would like to see more “warrior” in Scott’s “happy warrior” persona.
“A president sometimes has to bring a hammer in,” he said.
Rhodes is not alone. GOP primary voters seem to relish aggression from a prospective nominee, said Jeff Kaufmann, the Iowa Republican Party chair.
“Everybody at some point in time is going to have to, if not throw a punch, throw an elbow,” Kaufmann said. “And they’re going to have to land.”
Kaufmann, who is remaining neutral ahead of the first-in-the-nation caucuses, added it is a tactical decision by a campaign on when to go on the attack. But he thinks casting Scott off as someone incapable of mounting a fight for the Republican nomination is a miscalculation.
“I think his warrior credentials are inherent in his life story,” he said.
So far, Scott does not appear poised to mount an offensive against GOP rivals.
Republicans close to the Senator’s campaign said he has no plans of abandoning his strategy or evolving into something that is out of character. There’s no need to, they add, with his $21 million cash on hand, second to any candidate other than Trump, according to the latest campaign finance disclosures.
Instead, Scott’s summoning of a combat’s spirit has been directed toward Democratic politicians — and the media. His super PAC was fundraising as recently as last week off his tangle with a white co-host of The View who Scott said doesn’t “get it” on systemic racism.
While his campaign says such incidents are evidence that, when prodded, Scott will punch back, he hasn’t used skirmishes with the left to articulate an alternative vision on racial policy.
Shermichael Singleton, a GOP strategist who has worked on the presidential campaigns of Ben Carson, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, points out there’s little incentive to.
“This has to be part of the calculation to be just brutally honest. If Tim Scott were to start speaking differently on this, would Black people all of a sudden say, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to support Tim Scott?” Singleton said. “Probably not.”
Adam Wren and Natalie Allison contributed to this report.