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Trump is still DeSantis’ main rival. But watch out for Tim Scott.

The South Carolina senator is gaining traction among Republicans with his faith-forward campaign.
 
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., speaks at the Republican Party of Iowa's 2023 Lincoln Dinner in Des Moines, on July 28.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., speaks at the Republican Party of Iowa's 2023 Lincoln Dinner in Des Moines, on July 28. [ CHARLIE NEIBERGALL | AP ]
Published Aug. 6, 2023

Gov. Ron DeSantis has long been seen as former President Donald Trump’s main rival for the Republican presidential nomination. But the Florida governor appears to be paying increasing attention lately to another challenger who hails from a crucial early primary state: South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott.

The two candidates, who announced their candidacies the same week, have developed an increasingly hostile relationship, sparring over Florida’s teaching standards on slavery and over a federal abortion ban. The South Carolina politician has risen in presidential polling to sit just 5 points behind DeSantis in the early primary state of Iowa, according to a July 23 Fox Business poll, and has the second-largest war chest in the GOP field. (Other polls, including one released Friday by The New York Times and Siena College, put a wider gap between the two men in the state.)

Amid growing questions about his campaign’s direction, DeSantis’ team last month put together a confidential memo — later obtained by NBC News — reaffirming a plan to focus on early primary states and continue chipping away at Trump’s support. But it also singled out Scott as a growing rival.

Scott — the only Black Republican in the U.S. Senate — and DeSantis both hold strong conservative credentials, including A+ ratings from the National Rifle Association and 100% marks from the National Right to Life Committee. Each candidate champions clamping down on illegal immigration and combating China, and Scott has largely agreed with DeSantis’ sweeping education changes in Florida, especially the banning of critical race theory and discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation in the classroom.

But the senator has criticized Florida’s proposed African American history standards, which include a line saying that enslaved people learned skills that “in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” Scott, the first Black senator from the South since Reconstruction, said last month that slavery was really about “separating families, about mutilating humans and even raping their wives.”

At a July 28 campaign stop in Iowa, DeSantis responded that Republicans in Washington like Scott “all too often accept false narratives, accept lies that are perpetrated by the left. The way you lead is to fight back against the lies, is to speak the truth.”

Matt Wolking, who is with the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down, also retweeted an opinion piece in a conservative publication that called the senator “soft” and “a loser” over his comments on Florida’s standards, and a campaign representative retweeted another piece that accused Scott of “unfairly tarnishing” Florida’s education policies.

Scott has also swiped at DeSantis for staying mum about whether he’d enact a federal ban on abortion. (DeSantis signed a six-week abortion ban into law in Florida.) Scott, a proponent of a national 15-week ban who calls himself “100% pro-life,” said that “Republicans should not be retreating on life.”

DeSantis has built his political image as a fighter who has taken on “woke” practices as governor and has taken pride in making prominent enemies, including entertainment behemoth Disney. Scott’s messaging has instead focused on his background as a devout Christian raised in poverty by a single mother and a positive message of “faith in America.” The candidates’ differing styles could prove important as each vies to be the top conservative Trump alternative.

“At times (Scott is) trying to sound like DeSantis, like, ‘he’s really angry, too,’” said Brent Nelsen, professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. “But it doesn’t seem to hit very hard, because he’s such a positive guy that it’s hard for him to sound like the combative, lib-owning politician that a lot of people in the base want.”

A Scott campaign representative told the Tampa Bay Times that the senator’s bio, optimism and personal faith contribute to a unique level of relatability with voters. The campaign said it believes these characteristics are attractive to high-dollar donors as well, some of whom, according to reports by Politico and the Financial Times, have eyed Scott as a potential alternative to DeSantis. This includes makeup tycoon Ronald Lauder, who supported the governor’s reelection campaign.

“I think people are hungry for something hopeful and optimistic,” Scott said on TV talk show “The View” in June.

Nelsen said Scott’s demeanor is a main reason why the senator has become one of the most popular politicians in South Carolina, a state dominated by evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016 and 2020. Scott’s home state is the most populous of the first four presidential primary states and has correctly predicted all but one Republican nomination since 1980. Nelsen said that if Scott does well there, especially compared with former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, he stays competitive. Falter and he’s out, Nelsen said.

Scott faces an uphill battle in the state against Haley, who sits 34 points behind Trump in second place, according to a recent Fox Business poll, with DeSantis in third and Scott in fourth. But the downward slide of DeSantis’ campaign — epitomized by sweeping layoffs and a Nazi symbol promoted by a former staffer last month — leaves the door open for Scott to emerge from the Palmetto State with further momentum.

“When people hear the message, as long as it’s anchored in conservatism and you have a backbone, people are interested in engaging in the conversation,” Scott said on “The View.” “As opposed to having a message around populism, having a message around principles is attracting more folks.”