He’s climbing in the polls and turning heads in Iowa and New Hampshire, behind heavy spending on ads that play on voters’ appetite for an optimistic and positive leader in a dark political moment.
He has experience, a compelling personal history, and a campaign war chest that gives him staying power in a Republican primary that has so far been a two-man race. And among Republican voters, he’s the candidate that everyone seems to like.
Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina is perfectly positioned to seize the moment if former President Donald Trump collapses under the weight of his criminal cases or if the challenge against him from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis fades.
The only question is whether either time will come.
Mr. Scott’s growing popularity in the early primary states made him more of a contender in the still-young primary campaign and – in the eyes of current and potential supporters and donors – a possible alternative to Mr. DeSantis, who is seen as an alternative to Mr. Trump.
Andy Sabin, a wealthy metals magnate who switched his allegiance from Mr. DeSantis to Mr. Scott and next month will host a fundraiser for three dozen wealthy donors in the Hamptons, cited his frustration with the favorites and said he hoped more in the donor class would join him in supporting Mr. Scott. Potential donors, Mr. Sabin said, « all want to see what the fuss is about. »
« They’re disenchanted with Trump and DeSantis, » he said. “And the others, I saw very little momentum.”
Since entering the race in May, Mr. Scott’s position has slowly increased in Iowa and New Hampshire. A University of New Hampshire survey of likely voters, out Tuesday, found him in third place among the state’s primary voters, with 8 percent of the vote, ahead of former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, both of whom focus intensely on the state.
It’s also third in recent Iowa polls — at about 7 percent — and some national surveys they showed him as the second choice for many Trump or DeSantis supporters, even as it comes at a time when primary voters who don’t engage with Trump often consider several candidates.
Mr. Scott’s strength in early states has caught the eye of other potential donors, including billionaire cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder, who met with Mr. Scott in South Carolina this month. In August, Mr. Scott will be holding fundraisers in at least five states, including Colorado, Tennessee and Wisconsin.
Though he hasn’t been as prominent a presence on the campaign trail as his rivals, Mr. Scott and his allied groups have poured hefty sums of money into Iowa and New Hampshire, spending $32 million running ads through January 2024, more than any other Republican candidate or group on the airwaves, according to monitoring firm AdImpact. Mr. Scott is the only Republican contender who has booked an ad that early.
Mr. Scott’s supporters say his positive campaign message and general appeal contrast with primary favorites. The highest-ranking black Republican, he is running on a unique history in America as a candidate and senator with roots in a low-income Charleston community.
However, although Mr. Scott has shown some momentum in early states, including his home state, Republican voters have yet to flock to him in droves, and he is still relatively unknown nationwide.
A Quinnipiac University survey of voters nationwide found him tied with Mr. Christie in the primary among likely Republican voters, behind Ms. Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence, who are in third place. And though he’s well-liked in the early state primaries, more than half of Republican voters polled nationwide said they didn’t know enough about him to have an opinion.
Alex Stroman, the former Republican Party executive director from South Carolina, acknowledged the problem but said it was fixable. « I think the more people are introduced to Tim Scott, they’re going to like Tim Scott, » he said. « The problem is, it’s a crowded primary. »
Asked during a town hall in New Hampshire on Tuesday how voters should deal with such a crowded field, Mr. Scott said he expects « the field will shrink pretty quickly » when voters cast their ballots in February’s state primary election.
The first opportunity to introduce oneself to a national audience will be the Republican debate on August 23rd. Mr. Scott’s campaign manager Jennifer DeCasper recently said that Mr. Scott has met the donor and poll thresholds to be on the debate stage. Mr. Scott, who raised more than $6 million in the second quarter, has more than $20 million in the bank — one of the largest war chests in the primary and enough, Ms. DeCasper said, to keep his campaign afloat through the Iowa caucuses and all three first state primaries.
« At the end of the day, applicants can post any number they want, » he said. « But the name of the game is how much actual cash you have on hand that’s available for use in the Republican primary. »
On Tuesday, Trust in the Mission PAC, a group backing Mr. Scott, announced it would spend $40 million on broadcast and digital advertising in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — a gargantuan outlay that far exceeds the spending of any other candidate in the GOP camp and could eventually reshape it.
The PAC spending reflects a huge gamble on Mr. Scott’s profile rise, especially as he maintains a relatively limited campaign presence: He has relegated his time in the early states primary this month to the few days of the week he’s not in the Senate. The group has already disbursed more than $7 million in advertising over the summer; the $40 million purchase will begin in September. He’s also helping finance a small field operation of about a dozen vendors in the early primary states.
One challenge Mr. Scott still faces is presenting a political message that separates him from the rest of the Republican primary field. His ads in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina are biographical, some touching on national security, warning of the threat China could pose, while others deal with cultural issues, criticizing Democrats’ education policies and their views on race.
But trying to appeal to a broad swath of Republican voters without alienating key portions of the party’s primary electorate has proven challenging.
Terry Amann, an Iowa pastor who has met with most Republican candidates, said Mr. Scott needed to articulate a more robust policy plan to connect with conservative evangelicals who may decide the caucuses in January. Although the senator’s conservative message and his frequent Biblical allusions endeared him to many faith-based Republican voters, Amann said, Scott did not clearly state his position on abortion restrictions.
« If you want to be the candidate that stands out for faith, there are some issues that I think are worth putting down, and this is one of them, » he said. « That would be my challenge to him if he wants to get away from the rest of the pack. »
Just over a month after the first debate and six months after the Iowa caucuses, Scott’s campaign still sees an opening to refine its message and consolidate more voters. However, as he tries to outdo DeSantis, the biggest challenge will be wresting the support of more than half of Republican primary voters for Trump.
« These campaigns, candidates, need to figure out what the hell they want voters to know about them, » said Dave Carney, a veteran Republican strategist in New Hampshire.
Mr. Scott, because of his background, has a unique story to tell, which may get « people to listen a little bit, » Mr. Carney said. « That’s a big plus. »
But, he added, “the point isn’t just to get their interest, then you have to make the deal.
« You have to sell the business. »
Ruth Igelnik contributed report.