Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) is inching ever closer to a formal presidential run, but Republicans say they are skeptical about his chances in a GOP primary that has been dominated so far by former President Trump.
Scott on Wednesday took the most concrete step yet toward a 2024 bid by launching an exploratory committee only hours before kicking off a three-day swing through Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
The plans come after a number of other 2024 machinations for the Palmetto State senator, including a number of appearances at high-profile events in recent months. He will also appear at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition’s event next weekend.
When asked in an interview with CBS News on Wednesday whether he will support Trump if he is the nominee, Scott said, “I plan on being the nominee.”
But Scott would face an uphill climb in the primary, with most national and early state polls showing him in the single digits. A Winthrop University poll of registered South Carolina Republican voters released on Wednesday shows Scott polling at 7 percent in his home state, trailing Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R).
“The lane for him is fairly complicated,” said one GOP operative. “It’s either him or Pence at the end of the day. … The non-grievance politic. The getting-back-to-the-basics-of-being-a-Republican kind of stuff. Now is there a huge appetite for that? Not at the moment. But that doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be.”
So far, the only top-tier candidates to make their campaigns official are Trump and Haley, with DeSantis and former Vice President Pence expected to do so in the coming months.
Other Republicans are more optimistic, arguing there is an appetite for a candidate like Scott, who strikes a strong contrast with the former president.
“We’ll see a bounce obviously from his exploratory committee, and especially if he gets in the race,” said Alex Stroman, former executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party.
Scott’s team released a video on Wednesday in which he discussed his experience being raised by a single mother in poverty while having “an unwavering belief that we too could live the American dream.”
“His evangelical background, the high-priority matters to his life, I think, resonates with a lot of Republican primary voters,” Stroman said.
“Tim Scott is somebody who is kind of the anti-Trump in demeanor,” he continued. “He’s not a bomb-thrower and I think that a lot of Republicans are ready to move on from the bombastic attacks. They want a fighter, yes, but maybe they don’t want someone who has to do it in a personal way and that’s not Tim Scott’s style.”
Nevertheless, the mountain for Scott to climb in the coming months and over the next year is incredibly steep. DeSantis’s downturn in the polls in recent weeks amid a number of stumbles has only increased Trump’s standing in the still-emerging field.
To most in the GOP, this race is Trump’s to lose.
“I’m very skeptical anyone not named Donald Trump has much, if any, odds. The one thing [Scott] has going for him is a distinct message and a fundraising prowess that’s nearly unmatched,” the operative said, noting that Scott had $21.7 million already in the bank that he can transfer toward his presidential operation. “But eyes wide open, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out President Trump is the heavy, heavy favorite in this race.”
The biggest opening Scott has in this race is calendar-related, as two of the three early voting states — Iowa and South Carolina — are places where he has the potential to make a real dent with voters. A strong performance in Iowa, where he was on Wednesday, is considered a possibility by a number of influential Iowa Republicans given his political temperament and ability to connect with voters.
“There’s a high ceiling in Iowa for a candidate who embraces the state and actually puts forth the effort to win it,” said Craig Robinson, a longtime Iowa-based GOP political strategist. “You might not be knocking off the winner … but if you compete in Iowa and finish ahead of Pence and Haley, you’ve accomplished something and move your campaign up. I think there’s a lot to play for here and I think he has a very high ceiling.”
Bob Vander Plaats, the president of the Iowa-based conservative organization Family Leader and a conservative activist in the Hawkeye State, argued that Scott has more than a decent chance to do well with voters there, pointing to his “authentic” and “down to earth” personality.
“I think he’ll do exceptionally well with Iowans,” Vander Plaats told The Hill. “Iowans will definitely give Tim Scott a fair shake, a warm welcome, and I certainly wouldn’t underestimate him. I think he’s a compelling candidate.”
Jim Merrill, a veteran New Hampshire Republican strategist, noted that Scott would do well in that primary state as well, and that the race was not necessarily Trump’s to lose.
“As we just get this process underway here, Donald Trump is still kind of the furthest up the mountain to get to the peak,” Merrill said. “I think there are people who are prepared to make New Hampshire a real battleground and are going to compete for it.”