WASHINGTON — Much of the country has never heard of Tim Scott, the junior senator from South Carolina and a presidential candidate who, at this point, is a long shot for the Republican nomination.
But Democratic strategists know Scott — and some worry he might pose a real threat to beat President Joe Biden in a general election if he makes it that far.
Former President Donald Trump leads — by large margins — in every Republican primary poll, but Democrats watching him appear in another courtroom are handicapping the prospects of the rest of the field.
Democrats worry that as a Black man, Scott, who was elected to the Senate in 2012, would peel away voters who are crucial to Biden’s re-election. That, at age 57, Scott’s mere presence on the debate stage would call attention to the inconvenient fact that Biden is the oldest president ever. And that with an upbeat message, Scott might appeal to an electorate disenchanted with the sour state of American politics.
Mo Elleithee, a former Democratic National Committee communications director who now runs the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Policy, invited Scott in 2016 to speak to his left-leaning students. In front of the class, Scott kicked off his shoes, revealing a pair of neon pink-and-blue polka-dot socks. Shoeless, the senator won over the room.
“I was just struck with his ability to connect with that audience,” Elleithee said. “I know a lot of them walked out not necessarily supporting him but seeing him as a different kind of political figure.”
There is little doubt that, despite what hypothetical general election polls right now might find, Democrats see Trump as the easier candidate to beat.
Trump has already lost to Biden once, his liabilities are widely known, and he has taken on a mountain of new political baggage with a federal indictment last week that charged him with mishandling sensitive national security records after he left office. Trump, who turns 77 Wednesday, would also have a tougher time than younger Republican rivals making a credible case that Biden, 80, is too old for the job.
Neither Scott nor former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, another minority candidate, has much to lose by running. If they demonstrate enough voter support, they stand a chance to become a vice presidential pick, as their diversity might bolster the appeal of the GOP ticket.
An NBC News poll in April showed that only 6% of Republicans named Scott as their first or second choice in the GOP primaries. Haley was at 17%. (Trump, by contrast, garnered 66%.)
“He’ll be the happy warrior, and that takes him wherever it takes him,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said of Scott. “But he will be a breath of fresh air in the primary, frankly.”
If Scott or Haley were to somehow defy the odds and win the nomination, they’d match up well against Biden given his vulnerabilities, some Democrats said.
“It’s apparent in every public poll that there are pervasive concerns about Biden’s age,” said Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist. “That allows any of these other candidates who are not named Trump to paint a much stronger contrast about taking the country in a new direction.”
A congressional Democrat, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk freely, said, “While the president has led admirably, even his most devout supporters know that his age and vitality are likely to play significant roles in the election — particularly if he’s matched against a decades-younger candidate.”
But for Republican voters, electability has become more about firing up the base and less about appealing to moderates and independents. (And Trump continues to falsely claim he won in 2020, making the argument that he is electable.)
“Democrats all went to Joe Biden in 2020 because we just decided he was the best general election candidate and we just wanted to win,” said Jim Messina, who managed former President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012. “The Republicans this year have taken the complete opposite approach and have decided that passion and anger is more important than electability.”
When Messina managed Obama’s re-election campaign, his team worried most about having to run against a Republican with proven crossover appeal, like former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, whom the White House sent halfway around the world with an ambassadorship to China, in part to get him out of the way.
Its other big fear was Mitt Romney, who was previously the governor of deep-blue Massachusetts. Republican voters had more hard-right candidates to choose from in the 2012 primaries, including former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia. Yet they nominated the candidate believed to have the best chance of defeating Obama: Romney. (Romney went on to lose the general election, fueling a revolt within the GOP rank and file that aided Trump’s rise four years later.)
“Republicans thought we’ve just got to nominate someone who can win, so they went with Romney,” Messina said.
Now a GOP senator from Utah, Romney sees Scott as the sort of candidate who can succeed where he failed.
“I frankly think that Tim Scott, like some of the others running on the Republican side, would be successful against President Biden in a general election,” Romney said. “Their challenge is getting past Donald Trump.”
The Democratic Party’s official view is that Scott, Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are all extreme choices in their own ways and that Biden could beat any of them.
But others worry that Scott and Haley could make inroads with crucial parts of the Democratic coalition Biden needs to keep intact. Haley, the first Indian American to serve in a presidential Cabinet, might attract women and college-educated voters put off by Trump’s behavior.
She won bipartisan praise for calling for the removal of the Confederate battle flag that had flown at the South Carolina Statehouse for years. Haley took the step after a white supremacist killed nine parishioners at a Black church in Charleston in 2015.
“Nikki Haley is a nightmare,” said a Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity to share conclusions from a private focus group testing Haley’s appeal. “I think she’s a nightmare because she can hold her base but win over others without seeming too conservative.”
Scott, the first Black senator from the South since Reconstruction, could conceivably shave a few points from the Black male vote in key swing states. Exit polls from 2020 showed a slippage in the margin of Black men voting for Biden compared to Hillary Clinton in 2016. Black voters remain a crucial demographic group for Democrats, and the defection of just a small percentage could cost the party dearly, while a Black nominee might also make some white voters who fled the Republican fold in the Trump era feel better about returning.
“Tim Scott [would] get more Black votes than Donald Trump did running against Joe Biden,” a Biden fundraiser said, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk freely. “It’s going to happen.”
Hardened Democratic operatives say Scott’s appeal is rooted in a compelling personal story of having grown up poor and Black in the Deep South, together with his message that as president he would try to make similar opportunities available to everyone.
“A Tim Scott candidacy is the one that I think would be the most complicated to run against,” said Elleithee, the former DNC official. “Almost any Democrat can write the campaign plan against Donald Trump. Almost any Democrat can write the campaign plan against Ron DeSantis. It’s relatively easy to do. You basically know what you’re going to get. But I think people would have to think long and hard about how you run against Tim Scott.”
Democrats learned that lesson through painful experience. There have been several occasions when Democratic officials have been forced to apologize for racially tinged comments about Scott, reversing the pattern of Democrats’ taking umbrage at Republican insensitivities.
The second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, Dick Durbin of Illinois, apologized in 2020 after he called Scott’s police reform bill “token” legislation. Scott’s 2022 Democratic opponent apologized for calling him “Uncle Scott” (a play on “Uncle Tom”) in a fundraising email. And a Texas Democratic official resigned in 2021 after having called Scott an “Oreo,” a derisive term meaning “Black on the outside, white on the inside.”
“The challenge for Tim Scott in the primary is whether he can find a path that is wide enough for him to become at least an alternative to Trump and Ron DeSantis,” said John Thune of South Dakota, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, who has endorsed Scott. “When you talk about electability, I think he puts in play broad swaths of the electorate that have been tuning us out lately partly because of his style.”
Of course, Scott has the advantage of being relatively unknown. Democratic operatives have been digging into his record in case he emerges as the nominee or the vice presidential choice. If Scott were to make it through the GOP primary gantlet, he could expect to be deluged by negative ads highlighting his anti-abortion rights stance and his emphatic embrace of Trump.
“If, by some miracle, Tim Scott makes it on a general election ballot, he will have to answer for a decadeslong extreme record that is wildly out of touch with the American people,” said Ammar Moussa, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee. (Scott’s campaign didn’t make him available for an interview.)
Another hurdle faces any Republican candidate who defeats Trump in the primaries: There’s no guarantee Republican voters beholden to Trump would rally behind him or her.
Trump would need to gracefully accept his loss and exhort his MAGA followers to embrace the new GOP nominee. That scenario is hard to visualize: Trump isn’t one to stoically admit defeat.
“It’s a fool’s errand unless he’s running for VP,” Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist, said of Scott. “If he did somehow win the nomination, is he counting on Trump to be gracious for the first time in his life and hold his hand in the air with him at the GOP convention and urge his MAGA followers to support him? Good luck with that.”