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How Tim Scott Wins
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How Tim Scott Wins

He doesn’t. Unless …

Sen. Tim Scott announcing his run for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination at a campaign event on May 22, 2023 in North Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

Only three Republicans are capable of mounting consequential presidential candidacies, I think. One has been in the race since November, another will announce later this week.

The third is Tim Scott, who launched his campaign today.

Everyone else, from Mike Pence on down, is a prisoner of events. Unless lightning strikes Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, none has any hope of becoming the nominee.

Scott is different. He controls his own destiny, to a degree.

Imagining a scenario in which an authoritarian from Florida isn’t at the top of the ballot in November 2024 is like asking a science fiction writer to imagine how civilization would operate if the laws of physics were entirely different. It’s an exercise in creative weirdness requiring outlandish flights of fancy.

But the “Scott wins” scenario is less outlandish than, say, the “Nikki Haley wins” alternative. It’s the difference between speculating what life on Earth would look like if gravity were slightly weaker than it is versus what life would look like if gravity didn’t exist.

Scott is unusual in that he’s the only credible candidate in the race for whom there’s no downside to challenging Trump. (I stress: credible. Sorry, Vivek.)

Before this is over, DeSantis will make mortal enemies of a meaningful fraction of Trump diehards. Pence and Haley will confirm that they’re has-beens with no national future. But Scott is likely to make a good impression, raise his name recognition considerably, then return to a very safe seat in the U.S. Senate where he can pile up dough for 2028.

Everyone likes him, an unusual quality for a Republican politician of this era, so he’s unlikely to be attacked by other candidates unless he makes a major move in the polls. “A big step up from Ron DeSanctimonious” is how Trump greeted his new rival’s announcement this morning. That tone will change if Scott begins to rise, but even Trump may find that his rhetorical blows don’t land as hard on an appealing opponent as they do on the glowering DeSantis.

I stand by my assessment from February. The realistic best-case scenario for Scott in running is becoming vice president. The worst-case scenario is that he makes lots of new friends on the trail, gains influence in the party, and becomes a coveted endorsement ahead of the South Carolina primary after dropping out early. As worst-case scenarios go, one could hardly ask for more.

But what about the less realistic scenario where he actually wins? Does one exist?

Let’s start here: I think he has a reasonably realistic chance of overtaking DeSantis.

Financially, he’s loaded for bear. He starts the race with $22 million in the bank left over from his last Senate campaign and he’s putting it to use. His years on the Senate Banking and Finance Committees have acquainted him with many titans of industry, some of whom have ponied up for the super PAC that’s supporting him. Oracle founder Larry Ellison has donated $30 million alone, no doubt with more to come.

Scott’s popularity on the Hill has also positioned him to earn endorsements. The two senators from South Dakota, John Thune and Mike Rounds, are already supporting him; others will surely follow if and when his polling proves he’s for real. Normally being endorsed by Washington Republicans is a badge of dishonor in a GOP primary, but in Scott’s case I think it helps more than it hurts. His first task as a candidate is breaking from the pack of non-Trump non-DeSantis also-rans somehow. A drumbeat of prominent endorsements will distinguish him.

All told, you see what I mean when I say that Scott controls his own destiny—somewhat. He has the cash and the connections to make a splash.

He also has a distinctive credential that his opponents, Trump and DeSantis included, lack.

It seems farcically preposterous to imagine a black man winning a majority of votes in a party consumed by white identity politics, whose favorite television broadcaster is prone to musing about racial differences in styles of fisticuffs. If you understand Trump’s movement as an expression of nostalgic cultural revanchism by older white people—it’s right there in the slogan—then Tim Scott seems singularly unsuited to lead it. Yet the fact remains that African American candidates performed conspicuously well in each of the last two competitive Republican presidential primaries.

Little-known businessman Herman Cain reached 26 percent in the polls in October 2011, briefly overtaking Mitt Romney for the lead before fading. Four years later, neurosurgeon Ben Carson became the only candidate in a huge Republican field to ever overtake Trump, reaching 24.8 percent before fading as well. Just last week, Daniel Cameron smoked his two white opponents in Kentucky’s GOP gubernatorial primary by winning more votes than they did combined.

Such is the base’s enthusiasm for black conservatives that Candace Owens is frequently volunteered by right-wing focus groups as presidential material, according to political consultant Sarah Longwell.

Conservative African Americans offer the Republican base what no other political figure can, confirmation from within the Democratic Party’s most loyal racial demographic that the right’s cultural vision for the country is the correct one. The prospect of a member of that demographic carrying the right’s message nationally into combat with the left has a special potency that Trump and DeSantis can’t match.

And Scott knows it. The degree to which he’s leaning into the idea of his own personal success story as an unanswerable rebuke to American leftism is arresting. “Our party and our nation are standing at a time for choosing: Victimhood or victory? Grievance or greatness?” he said at one point in today’s campaign launch. Then: “I’m living proof that America is the land of opportunity and not the land of oppression.”

This is a man who knows his audience.

You’ve heard Trump say, “I am your retribution,” yes? Tim Scott is offering a strong brew of his own: I am your vindication.

One Scott adviser put it plainly. “The really big point at the end is going to be about how Tim’s life disproves the lies of the left—shows you that there is no ceiling on how high you can climb with opportunity and with individual responsibility,” he told Politico. Structural racism, white privilege, “wokeness”: If you’re a white right-winger who chafes at progressive cant about the struggles of minorities in America, the person of Tim Scott is a smoking gun that your skepticism not only isn’t racist, it’s warranted. It’s correct on the merits.

DeSantis could pass a thousand anti-DEI bills in Florida and never achieve that.

This is why Scott’s stalwart pre-Trump conservatism isn’t as much of a liability for him in a post-conservative party as one might think. (Most Republican voters don’t care much about policy to begin with, which is how Tea Party conservatism could give way to Trumpism overnight.) He may lack the populist credentials of Trump and DeSantis but on the crucial metrics of “challenging woke ideas” and “making liberals angry,” nothing can touch the spectacle of a black man mocking left-wing pieties about race. Scott might not even touch on policy much on the trail; his pitch, essentially, will be that nominating him would own the libs in a way nothing ever has or ever will.

And the nastier Democrats are in questioning his racial authenticity as he goes about his campaign, the more they’ll appear to prove his point. 

Scott understands that the left’s acidic scorn—they’ll show you who they fear—is one of his greatest potential assets, destined to endear him to Republican voters. No wonder he made a point of noting it in his speech this morning.

All of this creates a potential problem for DeSantis.

It’s easy to imagine Scott creeping up in the polls on the strength of aggressive ad spending, then capitalizing on the first primary debate to launch himself into contention.

DeSantis will be the focus of that debate, especially if Trump doesn’t show. He’ll be gang-tackled by the rest of the field while Scott does his cheerful “I’m your enemy’s worst cultural nightmare” pitch, with no one laying a glove on him. If DeSantis performs badly, the many traditional conservatives who are backing him reluctantly because he’s the most viable alternative to Trump (like me, say) will feel the flop sweat and start looking for a back-up. 

Tim Scott, a dogmatic small-government Republican with charm to burn, is the obvious landing spot. As a devout and outspoken Christian, he’s also well-suited culturally to Iowa. If Republican support there begins shifting from DeSantis toward Scott after the debate, the governor might never recover.

Scott even has an electability pitch, hypothetically, that DeSantis can’t match. The governor won 13 percent of the black vote in Florida in November, in line with the 12 percent Trump received nationally in 2020. Those numbers are an improvement over the Obama era, with black men (especially younger black men) showing growing interest in the GOP lately, but there’s lots of room to expand. If nominating an African American meant even just a few extra percentage points of the black vote for Republicans, Joe Biden would have a daunting math problem in states like Pennsylvania and Georgia.

I wouldn’t say that Scott is likely to overtake DeSantis in the polls. But it’s probable enough that you don’t need force majeure to explain how it might happen.

Scott overtaking Trump would require force majeure

It’s too difficult to imagine the Great White Hope being knocked at last from his perch atop the party by, of all people, a black longshot candidate. Especially one who talks like this: “I have found that people are starving for hope. They’re starving for an optimistic, positive message that is anchored in conservative values.” Hopefulness and positivity, let alone conservative values, are … not virtues I typically associate with the modern Republican Party.

Trump has built a base of fanatic messianic support on the right preaching that America is terrible and only he can save it. Scott, essentially, is arguing that America is wonderful and his ascension to the Senate in the first state to secede from the Union before the Civil War proves it. For the party to suddenly shift from Trumpism to Scottism would be as disorienting and unlikely as shifting from, er, Tea Party conservatism to Trumpism.

If you had to write a scenario in which Scott beats Trump, you’d start with the one I sketched above about Scott overtaking DeSantis. Then would come force majeure, with Trump suffering a health crisis or facing criminal charges so grave and credible that undecided Republicans would be forced to grapple seriously with his electability instead of rallying behind him as usual. Consistent polling showing Scott performing much better head-to-head against Biden than Trump does would further encourage them to do so.

The clearer it became that either Trump or Scott will be the nominee, the less money available there’d be for the also-rans. They’d begin to drop out and most of them, if not all, would endorse Scott. He’d consolidate most of the anti-Trump vote. Then he’d win Iowa with help from evangelical conservatives (and maybe a few Trump-hating Democrats who insisted on participating in the GOP caucus). After that, even Trump couldn’t halt his momentum.

Seems unlikely, no?

One problem with my scenario is that there probably aren’t enough non-populist votes in a modern Republican primary for Scott to prevail even if he won all of them. A sizable chunk of DeSantis’ support comes from populists who prefer the governor to Trump for various reasons but prefer Trump to any “establishment” politician. If DeSantis were to flame out of the race, those voters are switching to Trump, not to Scott. Which means the senator will need not only to unite the non–populist bloc but also somehow convince a meaningful share of the MAGA base to abandon its hero and embrace a sunny, Reagan-esque African American “happy warrior” as their standard-bearer instead.

A movement of dour, aging white authoritarians is probably going to stick with the dour, aging white authoritarian, right?

Scott also has a significant political liability that Trump can exploit if forced to do so. The senator is willing, even eager, to assure Republicans that most left-wing messaging about racial politics is inflammatory nonsense. Most, I stress, but not all.

“While I thank God I have not endured bodily harm, I have, however, felt the pressure applied by the scales of justice when they are slanted,” [Scott] said in 2016, after a series of police shootings of Black men and the shooting of officers in Dallas. “I have felt the anger, the frustration, the sadness and the humiliation that comes with feeling like you are being targeted for nothing more than being just yourself.”

He initially promoted bills to increase the use of body cameras and the tracking of police shootings. When protests exploded in 2020 after the killing of George Floyd, he took on a deeper and more formal role, writing Republicans’ legislative response to the crisis.

What came out of that was the Justice Act, which, among other things, would have funded de-escalation training, outlawed chokeholds and made officers’ disciplinary records from past police departments available to new departments considering hiring them.

“Police shouldn’t choke people” isn’t the sort of belief that would end a talented politician’s chances at higher office in a sane party, but in a party as performatively feral as Trump’s GOP, where brutality is a measure of ideological commitment, it’s a problem. You can imagine what a demagogue as talented and ruthless as Trump would do with that if Scott ever threatened him in the polls. It’s no coincidence that the “thin blue line” flag began to feature prominently at Trump rallies in 2020 as a symbolic retort to the George Floyd protests. On one side are the forces of chaos, violence, and Black Lives Matter-ing; on the other side are the forces of order, authority, and white identity politics. Which side is Tim Scott really on?

His race will be a political asset to him in the campaign right up until the moment it becomes a major liability. If he believes that America’s police need to be more rather than less careful with the safety of people in their custody then he’s not our kind of African American after all.

He’s their kind.

It’s unlikely that he’ll ever threaten Trump in the polls, though.

Far more likely is that he’ll end up as his running mate. Trump wants a woman VP in 2024, it’s often said, but here again Scott controls his own destiny to a degree. If he charms Republican voters, if his optimism feels like a tonic to those exasperated by MAGA catastrophism, if his conservatism attracts the sort of traditional right-winger who might otherwise boycott a third Trump general election, the party might need him on the ballot.

Nothing would make the American right happier than to have an African American candidate in a general election assuring swing voters that Democrats are the real racists. It’s just that that guy can’t be the candidate at the top of the ticket, which is reserved for the avatar of white grievance. The senator can prove which side he’s on, conclusively, by helping that avatar win a second term. Prepare for Trump/Scott.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.