The shake-up may come too late to energize Scott’s faltering campaign.
After months of staying out of the conversation, the South Carolina senator is now sputtering below 2 percent in national polls. On Saturday, Scott’s hometown newspaper called for the Republican field to coalesce not around Scott, but rival South Carolinian Nikki Haley, to take on Donald Trump directly. Even some prominent Scott fans are beginning to acknowledge Scott’s presidential campaign has been a disappointment, and that his path forward appears dim.
“In talking to people here at home, what they have told me is that it’s unfortunate that the Tim that they know in South Carolina is not the Tim that people may be perceiving in Iowa and New Hampshire and other states,” said Mark Sanford, the former South Carolina Republican governor and U.S. representative who attended Scott’s May campaign launch.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) praised his colleague as a “spokesman” for the “Reagan, hopeful, optimistic message,” but conceded it hasn’t seemed to convince the party’s voters.
“I’m disappointed, because he’s such a terrific guy and has got a great message,” he said.
Asked if he hopes Scott can stay in the race until Iowa, Cornyn demurred: “At some point, there’s going to have to be consolidation when the outcome is inevitable.”
It wasn’t so long ago that expectations for Scott ran sky-high. South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, gave the opening prayer at Scott’s campaign launch. Larry Ellison, the billionaire founder of Oracle, was in the crowd, one of many donors intrigued by the prodigious Senate fundraiser. Big money, his allies maintained, was lining up for Scott ahead of the fall campaign. And even as recently as two months ago, Scott appeared to be in a far better position than he is now. He had reached double-digit poll numbers in Iowa, the first caucus state, behind only a weakened Ron DeSantis in the race to become the top alternative to Donald Trump.
But then came the first debate, a highly anticipated event where Scott spoke less than most of the other candidates and seemed to disappear for long stretches. Multiple Scott allies point to that moment — both the senator’s seeming lack of preparedness for the dynamics of the debate stage and refusal to embrace an aggressive earned-media strategy ahead of time — as a significant turning point. Ever since, Scott has trended down in Iowa, New Hampshire and in national polling. In an ominous sign for the campaign, his super PAC this week announced it was canceling millions of dollars in fall advertising.
Scott has yet to qualify for the third Republican debate, though he appears on track to do so. A person with knowledge of Scott’s campaign’s operations told POLITICO that the Republican National Committee has confirmed to the campaign that a little-noticed poll conducted by YouGov and The Liberal Patriot satisfies the committee’s polling requirement for the debate.
A spokesperson for the RNC did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Scott still must cross the committee’s 70,000-donor threshold before the Nov. 6 deadline.
“Tim Scott will be on the debate stage in Miami,” said Nathan Brand, campaign spokesperson. “The campaign is on track to meet the donor requirements.”
But getting on the debate stage is one thing. Nothing Scott has done in the first two debates appears to have helped his standing. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who endorsed Donald Trump’s 2024 campaign but has remained complimentary of his home state colleague’s own presidential bid, said Scott has “a good message.” But, he added, “You’ve got to translate that into support. Trump drowns out everybody.”
That lack of oxygen in the primary has been a major problem for all of Trump’s rivals. But Scott’s campaign appeared to do less than others to force him into the conversation. At one point, from mid-July to early August, Scott went three weeks without a single national television hit, while making a handful of appearances on local radio, TV and podcasts. After an early June interview on “The View” — and as DeSantis and Haley this summer were being booked on networks like CNN and NBC — Scott didn’t appear on any mainstream news shows until mid-September, when he went on the morning business show “Squawk Box” on CNBC.
The senator’s team “fundamentally miscalculated what it means to run for president and generate news coverage,” said one influential Scott supporter, granted anonymity to speak candidly about the state of the race.
Scott also does not speak to reporters in the halls of the Capitol. Nor has he aggressively leveraged his role in the Senate to create the kind of attention-grabbing moments some prior senators seeking the presidency have.
Other close observers of Scott’s campaign have noted its high spending rate — $12.3 million burned, as opposed to $4.6 million raised in the third quarter — a very different strategy from the lean operation of Haley, though Scott has more cash on hand for the primary than her or DeSantis. Rivals like Haley, DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy declined to spend campaign dollars on television advertising, allowing their allied super PACs to handle air time. While Scott’s campaign got a more favorable candidate rate for television than his opponents’ super PACs — and launched with more cash on hand — his campaign had already spent nearly $9 million on television this year through the end of the third fundraising quarter.
Scott and his campaign are plowing ahead. In between his recent flurry of media hits, the senator this weekend launched a seven-stop bus tour in Iowa and announced he will give a speech Monday at a predominantly African American church on the south side of Chicago. At a cattle call in Iowa City on Friday night, before leaving with a plate of chicken lips on a stick, Scott mingled in a crowd of Republicans — and was the only one to gaggle with reporters.
His aligned super PAC, meanwhile, has pledged to boost Scott’s current grassroots efforts in the wake of its recent ad cancellations.
But it’s unclear just how much of the advertising dollars cut from television will go toward that outreach. This week, TIM PAC canceled roughly $15 million worth of ads, most of which were television reservations between Oct. 17 and Dec. 27 in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. A person familiar with the super PAC’s strategy confirmed the group intends to play a substantial role in organizing Scott’s future on-the-ground events — similar to the pro-Ron DeSantis Never Back Down super PAC — but declined to provide specifics.
In a statement to POLITICO, Gardner, who co-chairs the super PAC, reiterated the message he had reportedly delivered to Scott and others in private conversations: He needs to be out there more.
“The more voters hear from Tim the more likely they are to become reliable supporters,” Gardner said. “He’s the most favorably viewed candidate in this race because people want to feel good about America again and they believe Tim can bring that change.”
Andy Sabin, a GOP donor who is backing Scott in the primary, said he is puzzled by how the affable rising Republican star is still lagging behind the others. Scott, while not as widely known as some of his rivals, has long enjoyed the highest net favorability ratings of the Republican primary field.
“When I see him, talk to him, he comes across great,” Sabin said. “I don’t know what the issue is.
“Let’s see how he does in the next debate, see if he’s getting any momentum.”
It is still possible — if he qualifies for the debate, if his polling improves, if his fundraising comes back around — that Scott could find traction. Graham, who said he spoke to Scott last week, suggested that Scott could finish in third or fourth place in Iowa and still remain viable in the race — and that “his campaign is helpful for the Republican Party.”
“There are still a lot of undecideds,” Graham said. “He could break through.”
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), one of two senators, along with Thune, to endorse Scott’s presidential bid, said that “sometimes you’ve just got to stick with it and wait until your opportunity is there.”
However, he said, it’s clear from examining primary polls that “right now, folks aren’t ready to move yet.”
Meridith McGraw and Steven Shepard contributed to this report.