With the GOP presidential contest intensifying, Tim Scott is about to get a lot more knocks on his door.
South Carolina is poised to play a major role in the 2016 campaign, and Scott plans to walk each of the Republican hopefuls through his state and pick their brains in a series of town-hall events that he's organizing for later this year. Unlike in 2012, when Scott held smaller town hall events with the candidates, this year he may actually endorse, offering up a prize no serious presidential contender could scoff at.
The South Carolina primary could provide an opportunity for lower-tier candidates to make their mark after contests in Iowa and New Hampshire—or for leading contenders to begin sewing up the nomination. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is expected to play well in New Hampshire's primary, while the Iowa caucuses are leaning in Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's favor (a caveat: it's April 2015), giving a quartet of senators and other candidates the chance to steal headlines of their own in the Palmetto State.
Scott's predecessor in the Senate, Jim DeMint, became known as the "kingmaker" for his influential role in picking conservative candidates for Senate contests. Now Scott is in position to play the same role in the presidential race.
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The first-term senator is by far the most popular politician in South Carolina, and one of the most popular in the country. A March Winthrop University poll showed Scott with a stunning 54 percent approval rating from his fellow South Carolinians. Among Republicans, a full 71 percent approve of the job he's doing in the Senate.
Those approval ratings are far higher than for any of the presidential primary contenders, and support from Scott could help broaden the voter base for any of them. Scott is well-liked among the business community as well as fiscal conservatives and among evangelical Christians; a trifecta of supporters for a fledgling presidential campaign. He is well-liked among conservative groups and the establishment. And as the party's only African American in the Senate, Scott represents a core constituency that the GOP is focused on this cycle.
In a phone interview from New Hampshire, where he is testing the waters on a presidential campaign of his own this week, Sen. Lindsey Graham praised Scott as an incredibly smart, humble man; a man of faith whose popularity in the state has not surprised his senior senator. "Tim in general is one of the nicest people I've ever met in my life in politics," Graham said. "Everybody likes Tim."
During the Senate's late-night budget vote-a-rama last month, Graham said he and fellow Republicans were sitting around chatting and watching basketball at around 11 p.m. when he noticed Scott off in a corner and asked what he was doing. " 'Doing my Bible study'—he said it very sheepishly. That's just him. He's unpretentious," Graham said.
Graham said that he and Scott have discussed the possibility of the senior senator's presidential campaign, but emphasized that he has not made a decision yet—and neither has Scott. "He's been very encouraging, thinks I have a lot to offer on national security," Graham said. "He says I'll make the state proud."
A Scott spokesman said that the senator has had very general conversations with a number of potential presidential candidates, including Graham, but emphasized that he will wait until after he has had an opportunity to commune with each of them before making a decision about an endorsement.
Scott is planning several town hall meetings with individual candidates some time in the late summer or early fall that will occur all over the state. The idea is that Scott and the candidate will take questions from attendees, and Scott and his constituents will have an opportunity to discuss issues of importance to South Carolina with a would-be president ahead of the primary. Rep. Trey Gowdy plans to join them at a few events in the Upstate as well.
One candidate who could benefit greatly from a Scott endorsement is Sen. Rand Paul. The Kentucky Republican, who announced that he was running just this week, is honing in on South Carolina as a major target in his presidential campaign and already has earned the backing of former governor and current Rep. Mark Sanford. And Scott could help Paul in his quest to improve the party's share of the African American vote nationally.
Paul, who was an avid supporter of Scott's appointment to the Senate in 2013, has not yet gotten in touch with the South Carolina senator about his presidential ambitions, the Scott spokesman said, despite a planned fundraiser and a separate campaign appearance in Charleston on Wednesday and Thursday.
But Scott's endorsement will be highly sought-after. His conservative bona fides could aid candidates such as Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who are viewed as more moderate, while his business acumen could offer establishment cover to someone like Paul or Ben Carson.
"His popularity is just broad and wide, among evangelical Christians, among Chamber of Commerce types. He has a disposition that it's just hard not to like Tim Scott. He's got a lot of talent," Graham said. "He's got a quiet passion."