early and often

The Haley-Scott Primary Within the Primary

Nikki Haley and Tim Scott appearing with Marco Rubio, their unsuccessful candidate to defeat Donald Trump in 2016. Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Now that South Carolina senator Tim Scott has taken a decisive step toward running for president in 2024, we have the spectacle of two long-shot candidates from the same state trying to become palatable alternatives to Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, who are together attracting big majorities of primary voters in early polls. Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who appointed Scott to the Senate in 2012, jumped into the race back in February.

As it happens, South Carolina will be the third state to hold a Republican contest in 2024, soon after Iowa and New Hampshire. Trump already planted a flag there in January with an event in which he showed off endorsements from Scott’s senior colleague Lindsey Graham, Governor Henry McMaster, and an assortment of other GOP leaders. More ominously for both Haley and Scott, a poll of South Carolina Republicans this week from Winthrop University showed Trump (at 41 percent) and DeSantis (at 20 percent) currently leading both home-state candidates, though Haley was looking reasonably robust at 18 percent. Scott was at 7 percent, but he got a late start.

While Haley and Scott will keep an eye on South Carolina, at present both candidates are more focused on the earlier states that will probably determine which of them — if either of them — survives to play the home game. There’s a lot of overlap in the messages and candidate profiles they are projecting in Iowa, where the nomination contest will begin (probably early next January). Both Haley and Scott are major Republican diversity symbols who frequently boast that their success as (respectively) Asian American and Black pols in the Deep South proves that the white racism progressives complain of is a thing of the distant past. Fans of both claim their identities, their life stories, and their attractive personalities could change perceptions of the GOP in previously hostile parts of the electorate. And the two veteran pols are already proving themselves to be excellent 2024 fundraisers despite the long odds against success.

But at the same time, both South Carolinians have solid right-wing credentials and are loath to directly criticize Donald Trump (though Haley has done so now and then, invariably backing off and snuggling up to the former president before he lashes out at her). Haley is an anti-union zealot who hails from the hard-core conservative DeMint-Sanford wing of her state’s GOP. Scott, for all the talk about his “sunny” and “optimistic” rhetoric, can savage “Joe Biden and the radical left” as hatefully as Trump or DeSantis. Haley and Scott, moreover, are both staunch supporters of U.S. aid to Ukraine, and offer a return to the Reagan-Bush foreign-policy tradition that Trump and — to a lesser extent — DeSantis have abandoned.

But there are also significant differences in Haley’s and Scott’s strategies for winning the GOP nomination. The former governor’s pitch to early-state Republicans is all about electability, as the Washington Post reports:

“Don’t complain about what you get in the general if you don’t play in the primary, because we have to win in November,” she told Iowans at a town hall in Salix on Monday. “No one can afford it. We’ve got to see past the trees, and that means you have to have a new generation of leaders, you’ve got to leave the drama and the status quo and the baggage behind …”

She portrayed herself as the most electable general-election candidate — one who could revive the Republican Party’s prospects across the country following a string of popular-vote losses.

Presumably, she is counting on an early and vicious murder-suicide competition between Trump and DeSantis that diminishes their intraparty support while making both men look like dead meat against Joe Biden. To the extent that Haley is hoping for developments far beyond her control, this is a low-percentage strategy.

Scott also obviously hopes that Trump and DeSantis initiate a demolition derby, and certainly intends to present himself as part of a new generation of conservative Republican leadership. But his main pitch, reflecting his key strategic imperative, is to conservative Evangelicals, particularly in their Iowa stronghold, as Politico observes:

A foregone conclusion … is that evangelicals — with all their subsets and denominations — will be his top constituency.

In a video announcing his new committee, Scott’s first pledge was to defend America’s faith values and protect religious liberty. Scott’s answer later in the morning on how he would beat Trump in a primary involved a reference to Psalm 139.

And own advisers say Scott’s path to viability involves courting the vote of churchgoers, particularly in Iowa, where his first meetings after his Wednesday announcement were with homeschool families and pastors.

Observe Scott for any length of time, and it’s clear he learned his oratorical chops from listening to long Sunday sermons; he’s steeped in rich Black Church traditions, even though his current politics surely offend a lot of Black Church leaders. But unlike the heathenish Trump and the inauthentic-sounding sorta-kinda Catholic DeSantis, Scott is totally at home in conservative Christian circles. His main competition in that respect is very clear: former vice-president Mike Pence. So Scott and Pence are on a collision course in the invisible but very real Bible Belt of the Iowa GOP, where in the recent past Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Ted Cruz all forged upset caucus wins.

In that competition, Pence is steady and reliable but a bit boring, and his conduct on January 6 has eternally offended MAGA folk. Scott, meanwhile, has to navigate some potential pitfalls, beginning with his currently dodgy positioning on the crucial Christian-right issue of abortion:

Pence instantly endorsed a national abortion ban the minute the big anti-abortion organizations called for one. Scott needs to do more than show his knowledge of Bible verses to win over the politically savvy conservative Christian leaders who haven’t already climbed aboard the Trump comeback train, in many cases following the lead of their MAGA-infested flocks.

There’s one other respect in which Haley and Scott are similar, and this issue is a real problem: Both are perceived by many observers less as serious presidential candidates but as up-and-comers angling for the second spot on a 2024 ticket with Trump or DeSantis. Short of ruling out this contingency, which neither pol has, there’s not much they can do about it other than by showing real strength as a candidate for the big job. And that needs to happen sooner rather than later.

The Haley-Scott Primary Within the Primary