South Carolina’s first Republican primary — ever — was in 1980. Since then, the state has always picked the person who became the nominee, with one exception: In 2012, Mitt Romney placed second in South Carolina.
Furthermore, the state’s primary acts as an early firewall against weaker candidates so that, theoretically, the party can unify around the strongest one. The 2024 election season will test the state’s status as a kingmaker, as two candidates are homegrown and already familiar to voters here — Sen. Tim Scott and former governor Nikki Haley, who also served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during Donald Trump’s presidency.
Having cut my reporter’s teeth on that 1980 Republican primary, I confess to feeling a small degree of satisfaction that South Carolina Republicans have this time managed to produce two candidates who are not White men. This comes after decades of Democratic sermonizing on the Zoroastrian wisdom of diversity. Neither Scott nor Haley fits the stereotype expected by the national media when it swoops in looking for the cast from “Duck Dynasty” and “ Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.”
South Carolina, of all places. It’s the locals who keep saying this, by the way. Except for newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy, who plainly hails from another planet (actually Cincinnati), the Republican roster looks more like an Augusta National Golf Club membership meet-and-greet than the long-ago-promised “big tent.” As for the Democratic roster … what?
To their endearing credit, both Haley, 51, and Scott, 57, have the sort of bootstrap success stories that would make Horatio Alger envious. Haley, who has been a candidate since February, is a first-generation American of Sikh Indian descent who grew up in Bamberg, S.C., a town so small it makes Columbia seem like Paris. She got her business chops by working for her parents’ clothing business, including serving as their accountant from the age of 14.
Scott, who announced his candidacy Monday at his alma mater, Charleston Southern University, was raised by his single mom. In high school, he was no one’s nominee for most likely to succeed; he flunked four subjects in his freshman year — Spanish, English, world geography and civics.
“Now, for those of you not familiar with civics, civics is the study of politics,” he told the crowd gathered for his announcement on Monday. “I will say this, though. I’ll say this. Hallelujah. Yes, yes, yes. I’ll say this, though. I’ll say this. After 10 years in the Senate, I am not the only one failing civics in the nation’s capital.”
Amen, Senator. At times, he sounded like a Baptist preacher, and not only because he quoted scripture. Scott has acquired the familiar cadence, no doubt thanks to regular church attendance with his mama. He travels home every weekend from D.C. to take his mother to church.
Scott credits his success to his mother and God, telling his audience that his family went from the cotton fields to Congress during his grandfather’s lifetime. His grandfather had to quit school by the third grade to work in the fields, Scott said. He, too, gets credit for Scott’s turnaround. While living with his grandparents, along with his mother and brother, after his parents divorced, Scott listened to his grandfather’s words: “You can be bitter or you can be better, but you can’t be both.”
Scott’s own prod to the audience echoed that advice: “Our party and our nation are standing at a time for choosing: Victimhood or victory?” he shouted. The crowd responded in kind: “Victory!”
Scott is unflinching in his faith, which perhaps explains how he maintains a happy disposition as critics refer to him as “Uncle Tim.” He’s used to it, practiced at ignoring those who question his “Blackness” or mock him for saying America isn’t a racist country. Not long ago, I asked his former press secretary Caroline Anderegg how he withstands the pressure.
“The answer’s the same for everything he does,” she said. “Jesus.”
Scott’s joyfulness seems authentic. Funny and self-deprecating, he reminds me of the state’s other senator, Republican Lindsey O. Graham, before Graham traded better for bitter. Maybe the more apt comparison is Ronald Reagan without the Hollywood. No matter the outcome of the election, Scott’s message of optimism and compassion will be good for America.
The same may be said of Haley, who is just as easy to like. Cool as a Carolina cucumber, she’s also tough, shrewd and a quick study, as was obvious during her tenure at the United Nations. She has a talent for assessing a moment, such as when, as governor, she ordered the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the State House grounds following the massacre of nine Black parishioners attending Bible study at Mother Emanuel church here.
Haley might have had no choice, given the circumstances, but she acted swiftly and, in removing a symbol that’s loathed by many (and loved by a few), planted her own flag in the nation’s heart. Ironically, she also deserves some of the credit for Scott’s rise, as it was Haley who tapped him in 2012 to fill Sen. Jim DeMint’s seat when he left to head up the conservative Heritage Foundation. Scott went on to win a special election in 2014 and was elected to full terms in 2016 and 2022. He has earned his place at the table.
This is to say, South Carolina Republicans face a conundrum in deciding whom to support. Both Haley and Scott are well-liked, but neither is viewed as a threat to you-know-who.
If either Scott or Haley should win the South Carolina primary, could he or she become the party’s nominee? Probably not, but stranger things have happened — and the night is young.
A prediction now would be foolhardy, but one probably wouldn’t lose the farm betting on the worst outcome: the Don. Driving home recently through a middle-class neighborhood, I passed a large sign hanging from a roadside fence reading: “Rude and Crude, he’s still my dude. Trump for president.”