Analysis: ‘A third option’: Haley-Scott rivalry intensifies in GOP presidential race

Header photo of supporters of Nikki Haley, candidate for President in 2024. Photo Twitter @NikkiHaley

Hours after announcing his new presidential exploratory committee Wednesday, April 12, 2023, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) gathered a group of home-schooling parents at a library in Marion, Iowa – weaving scripture and his life story into a discussion about education policy as he presented himself as a next-generation GOP leader who could forge a new image for the Republican Party.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) will speak at events in South Carolina and Iowa this month amid rumblings that he might consider a presidential run. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by David Becker.

In remarks to reporters that spanned less than two minutes on the way in, Scott, the only Black Republican senator, said his background growing up “in an impoverished neighborhood in a single-parent household, attending four different elementary schools by the fourth grade,” had given him a unique perspective to address the importance of a quality education and expanding school choice.

Nearly 300 miles across the state, Nikki Haley made a similar appeal this week, leaning into her biography as the daughter of Indian immigrants who rose to become the first female governor of South Carolina. She portrayed herself as the most electable general-election candidate – one who could revive the Republican Party’s prospects across the country following a string of popular-vote losses.

“Don’t complain about what you get in the general if you don’t play in the primary, because we have to win in November,” she told Iowans at a town hall in Salix on Monday. “No one can afford it. We’ve got to see past the trees, and that means you have to have a new generation of leaders, you’ve got to leave the drama and the status quo and the baggage behind.”

The Iowa split screen featuring the two South Carolinians amounted to the opening round of a frenetic competition within the 2024 GOP primary. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is slipping in the polls even before he enters the race, and doubt is emerging about whether he is the strongest alternative to former president Donald Trump, who is in growing legal peril. In that moment of uncertainty, Haley and Scott are each trying to position themselves as the GOP’s heir apparent: a more youthful contender who can lure back voters who were repelled by Trump’s polarizing style and penchant for chaos.

“He really wants to listen and get things right,” said Amy Lovseth, 39, a home-schooling mom and former public school teacher who joined Scott’s private roundtable at the library with her 11-year-old twins. “I hope he would bring respect back to the party.”

Both Haley and Scott are polling in the single digits, well behind Trump and DeSantis. They are widely seen as significant underdog candidates who need to find ways to break through in a Republican Party in which Trump has retained a loyal national following and DeSantis has quickly built one.

Scott and Haley are not only on a collision course when it comes to their messaging. The two South Carolina natives are also competing in overlapping donor networks and among a limited pool of voters – even as they adopt different strategies for facing off against Trump.

Scott on Wednesday avoided even uttering the former president’s name during his brief media appearances and in the biographical video he released outlining his White House ambitions.

Instead, he grounded his move toward a candidacy in his personal story of climbing America’s ladder of opportunity with the help of faith and determination. That experience, he argued, could make him a powerful messenger to “disrupt” what he describes as the Democrats’ narrative that America is a “land of oppression,” rather than a “land of opportunity.” Haley has been more pointed – though still cautious – as she contrasts her record against those of Trump and DeSantis.

The political lives of Scott and Haley, longtime allies who still call each other friends, have been intertwined for many years in the Palmetto State. It was Haley, as governor, who appointed Scott to the Senate seat that was being vacated by Republican Jim DeMint more than a decade ago. At that time, she said it was important to her as “a minority female” that Scott, then a congressman, had “earned this seat with the results he has shown.”

Now, when their allies are asked to outline their respective paths for clinching the nomination, confidants to both Scott and Haley envision an intensive courtship of voters and activists over the many months ahead in the early states while Trump and DeSantis – who has made moves toward entering the race – battle for the top spot in what is expected to be an ugly and protracted battle.

The against-the-odds hope of both Haley’s and Scott’s backers is that GOP voters will tire of the combative approach adopted by Trump and DeSantis and give them a second look at the key moment when voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are making their final decisions, boosting them to a strong finish in both states with a slingshot of momentum that carries one of them to victory in South Carolina.

“All of a sudden, it might be those two have burned each other to the ground, and you have GOP primary voters either looking for or needing a third option or another option,” Republican strategist Kevin McLaughlin said of Trump and DeSantis.

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‘Looking for an alternative’

Since launching her campaign in mid-February, Haley has occupied the early state stage with little in the way of official competition, as Trump and others have been less active on the trail. As the first candidate to challenge Trump in the primary, she has had a head start on events and fundraising that her allies argue positions her well to be the chief alternative to Trump and DeSantis – a spot that could now be complicated by Scott’s likely entry into the race.

“Obviously, Trump has a bucket of support, but there’s also a bucket of people who are looking for an alternative,” said Haley’s communications director, Nachama Soloveichik.

Haley is attempting to outpace both Trump and DeSantis with stops in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, focusing on events where voters can meet her in smaller settings.

“There’s no question that the other candidates that are ahead of her have had some stumbles, and people are going to start to say maybe we shouldn’t put all of our eggs in the DeSantis basket,” said a person close to the Haley campaign who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be more candid.

New Hampshire Republican strategist Jim Merrill said that, in his state, Haley has so far run the most “authentic and aggressive” campaign of anyone in or looking at joining the 2024 field.

David Kochel, a Republican strategist in Iowa, also said Haley is “positioned pretty well” in his state and was “smart to get in early” and do a series of events. He predicted Haley would be among the two or three viable “non-Trump alternatives” at the end of the race. Scott, he added, “may also be one as well.”

Katon Dawson, a South Carolina-based adviser to Haley, described Scott as a “wonderful orator” and noted that he has a long résumé of public service in legislative offices, but he emphasized Haley’s executive experience running a state. “They’re both pulling from the same base,” he said.

A person close to Scott who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal discussions acknowledged that there is some overlap between Scott and Haley in both message and possible supporters, including their argument to Republicans that the party has fallen short in recent elections and needs to expand the base to actually win, but the person argued that Scott has more room to grow than Haley in part because he is less well known among GOP voters.

Republican strategist Rob Stutzman said Scott also has a compelling case to make as the alternative to Trump because of the combination of his life story, his unique perspective as a Black Republican, his potential to appeal to a general-election audience, and his ability to connect with evangelicals – a critical voting bloc in Iowa.

“I think a lot of Republicans will become enthralled with the idea of a conservative African American who’s got this phenomenal biography out of the South,” Stutzman said.

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Scott’s fundraising draws notice

Scott’s fundraising prowess has long been viewed by donors and Republican strategists as a potential asset as they survey the field of GOP contenders who might be able to endure a long primary season against Trump. Scott would enter the field after stashing more than $20 million in his Senate campaign account at the end of last year and $13 million in a super PAC with extensive funding from Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison.

In interviews, donors have often praised the team of Republican operatives around Scott, including former GOP senator Cory Gardner of Colorado and Republican operative Rob Collins, who are helming the super PAC.

But Haley raised $11 million in her first six weeks of fundraising, according to her campaign. The amount impressed some in the party and surpassed the amount Trump raised in his first quarter during a similar period of time after declaring his White House bid. Still, Trump aide Jason Miller recently said that Trump had raised more than $8 million in the week following the news of his indictment.

More than $1 million of the haul came from the Haley campaign’s Women’s Network – a group of donors and event hosts that started with 40 women at the launch of the campaign and now has 120 members – according to a person familiar with the fundraising tallies who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal finances. More than half of Haley’s fundraising events in the first quarter were hosted or chaired by women.

And at least a quarter of the high-dollar donors to the campaign and event hosts thus far had not been politically involved before, according to the source.

Susan Marvin, the retired chair of the board of the Marvin Cos., has given the maximum allowable contribution to Haley already and is giving exclusively, something she said she has never done before.

“I think she’s really, really well positioned to be the conservative alternative to Ron DeSantis and Trump,” she said. “I honestly believe Nikki has got the ability to appeal to a much wider group of people than anybody else that’s expressed an interest in running.”

This week, as Scott prepared to launch his committee, Haley’s campaign ramped up criticism of the top-polling front-runners.

“Donald Trump had a pretty good Q1, if you count being indicted as ‘good,'” wrote campaign manager Betsy Ankney in a memo to donors obtained by The Washington Post and first reported by Axios.

DeSantis “made one misstep after another, confirming what many observers have long suspected: he’s not ready for prime time,” Ankney wrote, citing his remark that the Ukraine war is a territorial dispute. The memo dismissed other potential entrants to the race, saying they “certainly did nothing to help themselves in the first part of the year.”

A DeSantis representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Similar campaign themes – and key differences

Haley and Scott have often struck similar themes in their speeches, even though they have differed in some policy areas and when it comes to addressing Trump.

Scott has argued that his race and background make him uniquely suited to reject the “culture of grievance” and “victimhood” he said has been fostered by President Biden and “the radical left.” His allies often note the leading role that he has taken in negotiating policing overhaul measures in the Senate as part of his record that could appeal to the independent voters that the GOP often struggles with and must win back in a general election.

Haley says she’s running to stop “the self-loathing that has taken over our country” and “to renew an America that’s strong and proud, not weak and woke.”

Scott directly addressed race in the video released early Wednesday morning, invoking the Civil War and stating that “all too often when [Democrats] get called out for their failures, they weaponize race to divide us, to hold on to their power.”

“When I fought back against their liberal agenda, they called me a prop. A token. Because I disrupt their narrative. . . . They know the truth of my life disproves their lies,” he said.

Haley has similarly claimed that she makes “liberals’ heads explode” because she is a conservative minority woman.

But they could draw from different wells of support as they build their coalitions. Haley sees an opportunity to draw in like-minded Republican and independent women who will relate to aspects of her story. And the foundation of Scott’s coalition in Iowa would be built around activating evangelical supporters, who are a critical voting bloc in that state.

Scott held private meetings with pastors in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Wednesday. And in the video about his exploratory committee, Scott placed a greater emphasis than Haley on his opposition to abortion rights than she did during her video launch, stating he would “protect our most fundamental right – the right to life itself.”

But both have been unclear in interviews about the extent to which they would curtail abortion access. In an interview with NBC News at the time she announced her bid, Haley called for greater “consensus” on restrictions – but said she was not sure whether limits should be imposed at 15 weeks, 10 weeks or six weeks of pregnancy.

An aide to Scott did not respond to a question about whether the senator from South Carolina would favor restrictions on abortion at six weeks – along the lines of a legislative proposal that DeSantis is expected to sign into law in Florida – or if he supported the national ban on abortion that South Carolina Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R) proposed last year, which would have included exceptions in cases of rape or incest, or to save the life of the mother.



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