early and often

Tim Scott May Overtake the Slumping Ron DeSantis. If He Does, What Then?

Are things getting real for Tim Scott ’24? Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

While much of the attention devoted to the Republican presidential-nomination contest has been devoted to Donald Trump’s indictments and Ron DeSantis’s struggles and attempted “reboot,” things are happening in the rest of the field. In particular, polls have shown two candidates, Tim Scott and Vivek Ramaswamy, beginning to separate themselves a bit from the bottom-feeding crowd. And while Ramaswamy is on track to become sort of a Republican (and wealthier) version of Pete Buttigieg, it’s hard to imagine the GOP actually nominating this 37-year-old biotech tyro who has never run for or held public office (or, like Trump in 2016, become an abiding national pop-culture figure).

So in many respects, it’s Tim Scott who is the more serious threat to the slumping DeSantis. He has a credible résumé, having served in Congress for 12 years, ten of them in the Senate. In the upper chamber, he’s earned the respect of his Republican colleagues, many of whom are publicly or privately backing his presidential bid. He has much better favorability ratings than most of his rivals. And he is a fundraising dynamo, having built up a war chest to wage a massive media blitz this autumn.

Scott’s strategy has been to parley a “sunny, optimistic” personality, a reluctance to criticize rivals (especially Trump), an overt religiosity, and an inspiring “personal story” of overcoming poverty to strike a chord in the early states while intriguing Republicans elsewhere. And it’s apparently beginning to work. The same Fox News poll of Iowa released last weekend that showed DeSantis 30 points behind Trump showed Scott within five points of the Florida governor (DeSantis was at 16 percent, Scott at 11 percent). Two recent surveys of New Hampshire Republicans (from the University of New Hampshire and National Research) both showed Scott in third place and rising; the latter poll placed him just three points behind DeSantis.

Though there’s been quiet talk about Scott’s potential from the day he announced his candidacy, none of his rivals has tried to take him down a notch. But that could change. This week, Scott departed from his own I-love-everybody script to take a shot at the man who stands between him and serious contention, as Politico reports:

Republican presidential candidate Tim Scott on Thursday criticized competitor Ron DeSantis on his support for Florida education standards requiring students to be instructed on the “benefits” of slavery. Asked by a POLITICO reporter about the curriculum requirement at a campaign stop outside Des Moines, the South Carolina senator said he hoped that “every person in our country, and certainly running for president, would appreciate that” slavery had no benefits to enslaved people.

This comment on the controversy du jour surrounding DeSantis is obviously made more pointed by Scott’s relentless message that his own life shows America has overcome its past racism. So he can uniquely criticize DeSantis’s soft-pedaling of historic racism without much fear of being called “woke.”

The moment does raise the question of whether DeSantis, having shown significant vulnerability, will now draw fire from Scott and other rivals who remain loath to say a discouraging word about Trump. Beyond that, if DeSantis’s reboot doesn’t work and he sinks into third place, does Trump simply cruise to the nomination? Or do he and his angry legions begin aiming their weapons at whoever succeeds DeSantis as the best-polling opponent?

That scenario may, of course, never develop. While the polling trends for DeSantis are decidedly bad nationally and in the early states, he’s still in second place nearly everywhere; he’s only dropped to third place in one South Carolina poll (another from Fox Business, which showed DeSantis running just ahead of Scott in the senator’s home state but behind former Palmetto State governor Nikki Haley). And the GOP race is about to accelerate onto potentially turbulent terrain with debates beginning on August 23 and new Trump indictments likely to drop in Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and possibly elsewhere. Almost anything could happen, and it’s still over five months before voters start voting.

But for all the understandable focus on the two candidates who have dominated the “invisible primary” so far, it’s good to keep an eye on Scott’s challenge to DeSantis. It is widely assumed that Scott has been running to become Trump’s vice-presidential nominee and/or to position himself for a second run in 2028. If that’s true or even half-true, it will be important for him to make as few enemies as possible. Above all, he must avoid attracting the ire of the 45th president and those supporters who view his return to the White House as vindication for the wrongs inflicted on him (and them) by the Radical Left forces who have made Joe Biden their vehicle.

The Bulwark’s Jonathan Last has suggested that Scott may be “in danger of catastrophic success” if he does catch and pass DeSantis in the race and subsequently fails to graciously hand the nomination to Trump. It may well be a decision Tim Scott would consider himself lucky to face, but it’s no longer the remote possibility it used to be.

If Tim Scott Overtakes the Slumping DeSantis, What Then?