Call it the Tim Scott primary.
The 49-year-old senator has quickly emerged as South Carolina’s most popular Republican, making his endorsement perhaps the biggest prize of 2016 in the Palmetto State’s make-or-break presidential primary. Scott has forged relationships with key players across the spectrum of South Carolina Republicans — business leaders, conservative activists and Establishment operatives — and White House hopefuls looking for an edge are looking to borrow a little of his political magic.
Thus with his signal Tuesday that he would not only be endorsing a 2016 candidate but using support for school choice as a central criterion in his decision, Scott has claimed an important piece of political and policy territory in the GOP.
“Tim is a very unique elected official,” Jim Davis, a Republican activist from Charleston, told the Washington Examiner Tuesday in a telephone interview. “I would trust him without question.”
Scott, who in last year’s mid-terms became the first African-American senator to win election in the South since the Reconstruction era, has been on Capitol Hill only four years. He won election to the House in 2010, representing the state’s coastal First District. Gov. Nikki Haley appointed Scott to a Senate seat a mere two years ago, after Jim DeMint resigned to join the Heritage Foundation think tank. He went on to defend that seat in a special election in November, with 61 percent of the vote.
Scott is junior in seniority to Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and less well known nationally, yet it is Scott who has come closest to filling DeMint’s shoes as a South Carolina conservative kingmaker.
After a couple of years playing it quiet and safe as he prepared to run in his first statewide election, Scott appears ready to seize the political moment that a crowded and competitive 2016 primary offers him as a South Carolina heavyweight.
On Monday, Scott convened a policy summit on Capitol Hill to promote school choice in public education that attracted Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a likely GOP presidential candidate, and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, chairwoman of the House Republican Conference. The senator followed that up Tuesday by telling the Examiner that he plans to dangle his 2016 endorsement as leverage to focus the attention of presidential candidates on his favored issue.
“Making sure that this issue is front and center as we head into 2016 is very important to me, because ultimately as these candidates come to South Carolina, if they do not have an affinity for school choice, I’m going to be very interested in asking the question: Why?” Scott said, adding about the primary campaign in general: “I’m going to play a very active role.”
As in 2012, when Scott served in the House, he is planning to host a series of town hall meetings to introduce South Carolina Republicans to the 2016 field. But this time around he’s spicing things up. At town hall meetings in South Carolina’s Upstate region, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., will cohost the events. Additionally, Scott plans to add a social media component to his 2016 town halls to boost connections with younger voters.
These days, endorsements are often all bark and no bite.
They make for a good news splash. But particularly with voters’ cratered trust in Washington, backing from a member of Congress can hurt more than it helps. Graham, who is exploring a presidential bid, has typically commanded the support of the GOP Establishment and the business community, while being viewed suspiciously by the Tea Party. Indeed, many South Carolina Republicans view third-term Graham’s presidential jockeying as a play for influence in the 2016 primary.
But Scott, who still has one more election to go in 2016 to earn his first full six-year Senate term, is already a major figure.
South Carolina Republicans say Scott is the unusual political figure that has managed to cultivate a reputation for principled leadership and flat-out likability — and to do so across class and ideological boundaries that often divide Republicans in presidential primaries. They like him in the more pragmatic Low Country; they like him in more socially conservative Upstate; they like him in Midlands, surrounding the state capital of Columbia.
In a crowded, competitive primary, Scott’s endorsement could tip the scales.
“If he were to give a nod to a candidate in the 2016 elections that would be very good for them,” Mikee Johnson, chairman of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, said.
Scott has also made a good impression in Washington.
On K Street, Republican operatives describe the former insurance agent as knowledgeable on the issues and detail-oriented. His GOP colleagues in the Senate see real leadership potential. He received a slot on the Senate Finance Committee, coveted for its policy influence and the fundraising boost it offers panel members, in a move that could not have happened without the approval of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Sen. John Thune, who as conference chairman is the No. 3 GOP leader, said Scott is going to be a big target for Republican presidential candidates looking for a game-changing endorsement. The South Dakotan knows a little about that. In 2012, Thune endorsed eventual GOP nominee Mitt Romney on the eve of the Iowa caucuses and the senator’s conservative seal of approval for the former Massachusetts governor was considered crucial to his success in the primaries.
“He’s going to be highly sought after, not only in South Carolina but nationally,” Thune said. “I think he’ll handle all of that attention extremely well. But it will be coming — there will be a firestorm coming at him.”