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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Alex Roarty

Haley or Scott? South Carolina GOP braces for ‘24 primary with two hometown candidates

Mikee Johnson went to high school with Nikki Haley, held a leadership post in her charitable organization and donated early on to her first gubernatorial campaign.

And yet, this well-connected GOP donor — like many South Carolina Republicans — still faced a difficult decision about which presidential candidate to support in 2024.

The possibility that U.S. Sen. Tim Scott will soon join Haley on the campaign trail — a decision Republicans consider increasingly likely — has thrown the state GOP into turmoil, forcing Johnson and other longtime politicos in the state with longstanding ties to both politicians to start choosing between their dueling campaigns before Scott even enters the race.

It’s a choice that pits two of the state’s most popular and influential conservatives against each other, and the resulting split could severely complicate both of their efforts in a primary state that should be foundational to their campaigns.

“Look, it was really difficult,” Johnson said. “I think a lot of both of them, and I talked to both of them.”

Johnson said he’s decided to back Scott if the senator runs, citing Scott’s commitment to school choice reform and bipartisan appeal. But he’s not so sure others like him will rush to offer their own support.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how many people do take a position,” Johnson said. “Because I’m sure a lot of people like myself are getting phone calls. And it obviously puts them in a difficult position.”

Haley, 51, entered the GOP race last month, declaring that the party needed a “new generation of leadership.” She and former President Donald Trump are the only major Republican candidates to have launched their campaigns, a field that could eventually include former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, among others.

Scott, 57, has not yet said he’ll run for president. But he has started hiring for a potential campaign, according to a source familiar with the senator’s plans, and has already visited Iowa, which will host the primary’s first nominating contest.

The source, who declined to name who had been hired, stressed that the senator had still not made a final decision and added that one was not “imminent.”

But Scott’s allies are already making the case for his candidacy, focusing on what they describe as his bipartisan approach and appeal to moderate voters.

“This country wants and longs to feel good about itself again,” said Cory Gardner, a former U.S. senator from Colorado. “When I talk to Democrats, when I talk to Republicans, they all see that in Tim Scott.”

Gardner is a chairman of Scott’s super PAC in waiting, as he described it, along with Rob Collins, a veteran Republican political operative. Asked if there were doubts that Scott would ultimately launch a campaign this year amid such a crowded field of potential rivals, Gardner responded that he wouldn’t want to be a “doubter.”

“Look, Tim Scott is the ultimate general election candidate,” said Gardner, who served with Scott in the U.S. Senate. “If the question for the country is who to elect for president, the answer is Tim Scott. It’s not a primary play. This is someone who will win the general election.”

The senator wouldn’t want for campaign cash in any presidential bid, at least at first, after bringing over nearly $22 million in his Senate campaign account to start the year.

Whatever skepticism once existed about the likelihood of Scott’s entrance has started to fade, other Republicans say.

“I think everyday people are focusing more and more on the possibility that there could be two candidates from South Carolina in the race for president,” said Rob Godfrey, a veteran Republican operative in South Carolina. “And I think people sincerely believe that possibility is a lot higher than it was three months ago, or a month ago, or three weeks ago, or even a week ago.”

Scott, of course, would face an uphill climb to win the GOP nomination. He barely receives any support in early polls of the prospective primary, and his bipartisan credentials could face scrutiny among conservative voters hungry for candidates promising confrontation with Democrats.

Scott was also a strong supporter of Trump and has said in 2021 that he would endorse the former president should he run again.

And he would also have to take on Haley, who in 2012 appointed Scott to the U.S. Senate and still holds a strong base of support in the state.

Many top South Carolina Republicans have praised both politicians, acknowledging they will be hard-pressed to pick between the two of them.

Adding to their difficulty, some of them explain, is the fact that both politicians — one the daughter of Indian immigrants, another a Black man — position themselves as future-oriented, optimistic leaders who consider themselves strict fiscal conservatives.

“I’m a big Tim Scott fan, I’m a Nikki Haley fan too,” South Carolina Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said in an interview last month. “That would be a hard choice to make. I think both of them have great stories to tell and offer a lot to that process, both of them would do a great job.”

At the time, he said he had not decided whom he would support in the presidential race.

Some state GOP leaders have endorsed in the race. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster has endorsed Trump, for instance, while Rep. Ralph Norman is supporting Haley.

But in interviews, Republican operatives predicted that the public ambivalence about which candidate to support could carry on longer than most people expect, possibly all the way through the primary.

“When you have two people who are such powerful forces of personality, and both of whom possess the potential to do such great things for the state, it makes the choice so much harder,” Godfrey said. “And when that choice is either between making a pick between two people you love, or sitting it out and watching this thing unfold, I think you’ll see a surprising number of people sit back and watch this race unfold.”

Johnson said he was nervous about telling Haley that he planned to support Scott if the senator runs. But the governor handled it well, he said, quipping to him that she would be there “when he saw the light.”

“A lot of people don’t want either of them to be upset,” Johnson said, “and don’t want either of them to lose.”


(State reporter Joseph Bustos contributed to this report.)


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