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The Earth 2 Primary
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The Earth 2 Primary

Tim Scott, Nikki Haley, and what might have been.

In 2016, both Nikki Haley and Tim Scott endorsed Marco Rubio in the South Carolina primary. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Nikki Haley is running for president. Tim Scott will be running soon as well.

The prospect of not one but two youngish, nonwhite, solidly conservative, not-very-Trumpy candidates entering the race and heading straight for also-ran oblivion practically requires old-school RINOs like me to flog the Republican base for preferring Trump and Trumpism.

“There is a great future behind Nikki Haley,” Stuart Stevens snarked in a column on Monday in the New York Times. “Had she remained the Nikki Haley who warned her party about Mr. Trump in 2016, she would have been perfectly positioned to run in 2024 as its savior. But as Ms. Haley knows all too well, Republicans aren’t looking to be saved.” Sarah Longwell made the same point this morning in a launch-day eulogy for Haley’s candidacy at The Bulwark: “Nikki Haley Is the Perfect Republican Presidential Candidate (for 2015).”

She’s polling at 3 percent in the latest primary survey conducted by Morning Consult, tied with Liz Cheney. According to The Daily Beast, Trump’s campaign is preparing to treat her like “a crash test dummy to demonstrate Trump’s dominance for anyone else willing to step in” and planning to attack her for being, among other things, a “hawk” and “disloyal.”

From next-gen Republican leader to political “crash test dummy” for a boorish authoritarian goon. That’s a trajectory that’ll have every Trump critic reading this nodding their head with grim familiarity.

Scott has taken less heat than Haley from traditional conservatives for accommodating himself to Trumpism, but he’s compromised too. His maneuvering hasn’t been as noisily and comically cynical as hers but he responded enthusiastically when asked in 2022—a year after Trump’s coup attempt—whether he’d consider serving as the great man’s VP. In a party full of poseurs, Scott had always seemed to take his principles a bit more seriously than most of his colleagues. Yet it was alleged squishes like Mitt Romney and Susan Collins who voted to hold Trump accountable at his second impeachment trial for instigating the insurrection while Tim Scott, Mr. Conservative, voted to acquit.

He’s currently rocking 1 percent in the Morning Consult poll, tied with Mike Pompeo.

On Earth 2, where Trump doesn’t exist, Scott and Haley running for president would be big news among Republicans. There’d even be chatter about a ticket: Scott/Haley or Haley/Scott? (Running mates from the same state would create constitutional complications, granted, but maybe the Constitution is different on Earth 2?) They’re a good match ideologically and even temperamentally, to all appearances, and their pairing would make history as the first nonwhite tandem ever to head a national ballot.

Plus, they go way back. They served together for a few years in the South Carolina statehouse before Haley became governor and elevated then-Rep. Scott to the Senate to fill a vacancy created by Jim DeMint. They’ve continued to work together in the years since on efforts to bring more women and minorities into the GOP. They’ve even been on the same team in Republican presidential politics. Conservatives of a certain age will remember the “rainbow coalition” Marco Rubio assembled in 2016 when Indian American Nikki Haley and African American Tim Scott endorsed the Cuban American Rubio ahead of South Carolina’s crucial primary.

Rubio ended up finishing 10 points behind true populist Donald Trump in that race and only barely ahead of fake populist Ted Cruz, a portent of how much muscle Haley and Scott are likely to bring to the 2024 primary.

All of that being so, one might look at their respective 2024 candidacies here on Earth 1 and wonder, “Why bother?”

To which I say: Why not?

One interesting point of commonality between Haley and Scott is what we might call the “vibe shift” they’ll bring to the Republican primary. Not just racially, although there’s that. I mean attitudinally: In a party in which anger is treated as evidence of authenticity, the two are decidedly mellow.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Scott so much as try to feign anger. Most politicians as conservative as he is commit themselves totally to lib-owning performance artistry but Scott exudes low-key charm and has spent years trying to work with Democrats on a deal for police reform. He’s beloved by his Republican colleagues in the Senate too, which could make the endorsement race to come interesting. There are precious few Republicans nowadays who pass my “beer test.” I’d have a beer with Tim Scott.

Haley will try at times to channel anger at “wokeness” and other populist hobby horses in interviews but her wrath is never as convincing as it was when she would rant about Russia while ambassador to the U.N. She may be the only Republican politician of the Trump era to explicitly denounce lib-owning, in fact. “I know that it’s fun and that it can feel good, but step back and think about what you’re accomplishing when you do this — are you persuading anyone?” she said in 2018 at, of all places, a Turning Point USA event. “Real leadership is about persuasion, it’s about movement, it’s bringing people around to your point of view — not by shouting them down, but by showing them how it is in their best interest to see things the way you do.”

The video she released today announcing her entrance into the race checks some of the culture-war boxes one needs to check to compete in a modern Republican primary (name-checking the 1619 Project, for instance) but it’s basically true to the spirit of what she said five years ago. The atmosphere is more Reagan’s “shining city on the hill” than Trump’s “American carnage.”

Her admission that the GOP has lost seven of the last eight popular votes is … interesting, don’t you think? The first step to persuading primary voters that Trump is a drag on the party is convincing them that he really did lose in 2020. Haley, God love her, appears willing to prosecute that case.

But I digress.

Scott is reportedly chasing the same upbeat vibe that she is with his own nascent campaign, “testing a message with GOP voters in key early states focused on unity and optimism,” per the Wall Street Journal. “He truly believes that God is great and America is great and we are provided with incredible opportunities,” his colleague, John Barrasso, told the paper. “So I think a Ronald Reagan ‘Morning in America’ hopeful America vision is one that Tim has, lives and breathes and is really needed in our country.”

From time to time you’ll hear Republican candidates who are soft-spoken by nature defend themselves as “conservative but not angry about it.” Scott and Haley each fit that bill, which makes them a decidedly weird match for the party in 2024.

But maybe Republican voters are open to a little weirdness this time? If it’s true that they’re looking for something different after eight years of Trump (a big if!), an ambitious politician who’s conspicuously different from him in not just in physical appearance but in tone might benefit from those differences.

And if not, I still think there’s a lane for a “Morning In America” candidate in the primary. Not a lane that’s going to get close to winning, mind you, but one that might land whoever occupies it near the top of the vice presidential shortlist. Trump and DeSantis will be battling in the “angry” lane, where 80 percent of the votes reside, but each will have an eye on a running mate who can soften their image. By dint of their conservative politics, their comparatively sunny dispositions, and their racial backgrounds, Haley and Scott are each top-tier options to help diversify a ticket led by a humorless glowering white dude.

That’s a good reason for them to jump in and start making an impression on Republican voters.

Another good reason: Neither of them has anything meaningful to lose by doing so.

Haley is just 51 years old, but she’s been a private citizen for four years and has no path back to statewide office in South Carolina in the near term. Had she not run for president this cycle, next year would have marked 10 years since she’s appeared on a ballot anywhere. Her shelf life as a politician is expiring in a party where the balance of power continues to shift away from traditional conservatives like her and toward ever more dismal populist Trump remoras.

It was now or never. Worst-case scenario: She finishes in single digits, boosts her name recognition considerably, and goes back to South Carolina to plot another run for governor in 2026. Best-case scenario: She becomes the darling of suburban Republicans, breaks into double digits in polling, and the nominee ends up feeling he has no choice but to put her on the ticket. By 2025 she’s vice president and the frontrunner for the nomination in 2028 or  2032.

Scott also has little to lose, although in a different way than Haley.

It’s not now or never for him. He’s 57, a sitting senator, and will hold his seat for however long he wants it. He could run for president in any cycle between now and 2040. (Maybe 2044 given how modern medicine and expectations of gerontocracy in America are going.) Why not bide his time, avoid confronting the 800-pound orange gorilla, and try his hand in 2028?

The answer, I think, is that Scott has everything to gain by running now. The same isn’t true of someone like Ron DeSantis, who could destroy his long-term national ambitions if he ends up losing a long, vicious primary war with Trump and alienates millions of Trump voters in the process. The probability of those two getting unforgivably nasty with each other is high, with unpredictable consequences for both.

The risk of Tim Scott getting unforgivably nasty with Trump or anyone else is zero. And the risk of anyone attacking Scott aggressively is small given that his conservative bona fides are rock solid and no one onstage at the debates will want to end up behaving boorishly toward the only African American candidate in the race. Even for Trump, it’d be nutty to pick a fight with a black politician whom seemingly everyone likes and who’s no threat this cycle to win the nomination.

For Scott, this campaign will function as a sort of meet-and-greet for future national runs. He’s been a senator for a decade but most senators are unknown to the general public; even most Republican voters would have trouble identifying Scott unless they watch Fox News, I’d guess. That’ll change soon. “A failed longshot presidential run—when matched with good political instincts and raw talent—can launch someone into stardom. And the downsides are minimal or at least outweighed by the bump in name recognition and fundraising data,” my colleague, Sarah Isgur, writes today at The Sweep. The first step on the long road to the presidency is making an impression on the party. That’s all Scott aims to achieve in 2024. 

And I think he’ll succeed, not solely because of his likability or his background but because the man is swimming in campaign cash. He had $21.8 million on hand at the end of last year, more than any other federal campaign account, and has another $17 million sitting in a super PAC that’s busily staffing up. That’s a lot of dough available to put Scott on the radar of Republican voters. And as they pay more attention to him, they’re destined to like what they see: Conservative voters tend to hold nonwhite conservative figures in a special regard, admiring their determination to resist pressure from the left to conform ideologically.

I’d go as far as to say that Tim Scott could be the second-biggest winner of the primary to come even if he finishes with 5 percent. Worst-case scenario: He earns a bunch of new fans, washes out early, and is eagerly courted by Trump and DeSantis for a key endorsement before the South Carolina primary. (Haley will be courted too, of course.) He’ll be a top-tier contender in 2028. Best-case scenario: Trump decides he simply can’t stomach having a woman as a running mate—weak!—and chooses Scott for the slot instead.

There’s one more reason for Haley and Scott to run despite the near-hopelessness of winning the nomination. As Liam Donovan said: Ya never know.

I’m skeptical that anything short of a major scandal would cause anti-Trump voters to look for a “break glass” alternative to DeSantis. They’ll be terrified of a 2016 replay in which they can’t agree on a consensus alternative and end up splintering across the field, paving the way for Trump to win with a plurality. And so, I suspect, this time most will consolidate behind the most plausible Trump rival early and stick with him doggedly as the road gets bumpy. DeSantis disappointing them on the stump won’t be enough to chase them away, just as Haley and Scott charming them on the stump won’t do much to entice them. Until they have a compelling reason to find a new champion, they’ll remain Ready for Ron.

But, well, ya never know. If that compelling reason presents itself, there’ll be a mad on-the-fly scramble to slot someone else into the doomed role of consensus Trump alternative. Haley and Scott would each be well positioned to fill that role. So they’re getting in, just in case.

Great news on Earth 2! But on Earth 1, boy, I don’t know.

The terrible and ironic truth is that they’re more likely to prevent a consensus from forming around a viable Trump alternative than to fill that role themselves. Trafalgar polled South Carolina last month and, well, read it and weep.

When Trafalgar removed Scott from the field, most of his vote went to Haley, not DeSantis. A sizable minority of local Republicans want to vote for a native son or daughter, it seems, provided they have the option. Result: Trump wins South Carolina with a plurality here, just like 2016.

And if that’s not depressing enough, consider that Haley and Scott will each have an incentive to hang around in the race beyond their sell-by date because their home state votes so early on the calendar. If either one is polling nationally at 10 percent come next January, say, they might resolve to stick it out until South Carolina in hopes of a miraculous invigorating victory of the sort Democrats there delivered to Joe Biden in the primary three years ago.

The “break glass” DeSantis collapse is unlikely. The “low ceiling” DeSantis fizzle is much more probable as a field of also-rans cannibalizes his support and midwifes a third Trump nomination. And trust me: If you didn’t like Trump 1.0 or Trump 2.0, you really won’t like Trump 3.0.

How do I get off this planet and onto Earth 2?

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.