In December 2012, when then-Gov. Nikki Haley chose to elevate then-congressman Tim Scott to be South Carolina’s next senator, she may have thought she was turning a potential political rival into an ally.
Little did she know she was actually setting Scott on a collision course with her own presidential aspirations.
At the time, both were rising stars in South Carolina—nationally, really—for a Republican Party that, just four months later, would release an “autopsy” of the 2012 campaign highlighting the need for the GOP to win back more voters of color.
After Sen. Jim DeMint retired and his Senate seat became vacant, Haley didn’t contact Scott for nine days. But then Haley invited Scott to dinner, and then at that dinner, she asked if they could announce his appointment to the Senate the next day.
“It was zero to 60 at the speed of a Tesla,” Scott told Politico on becoming the only Black Republican in the Senate, the first from his state, and just the fifth since the Reconstruction Era.
Fast-forward to late summer 2023, and the quiet detente between the two is coming undone.
“Ever since we started sniffing around on the campaign, we’ve felt visceral hatred from the Nikki Haley camp,” a source close to the Scott campaign in South Carolina told The Daily Beast.
For months, GOP campaign operatives have been wondering when the two South Carolinians were going to begin attacking each other. Both are fighting over a small and similar piece of the voter pie left over from Trump’s majority, and the South Carolina primary is a key part of both of their plans, so it always seemed inevitable that they would have to square off at some point.
While sources close to both campaigns say any open fighting between the candidates likely won’t happen until after Iowa—should they both make it that far, with President Donald Trump’s polling lead growing increasingly insurmountable—the Scott campaign has been keeping score.
It’s also important to note the significant overlap between the two staffs, with several aides and advisers to the campaigns previously working for the other South Carolinian at some point. That’s made for some strained relationships, even in a state known for its below the belt tactics.
“It’s no secret that along with that visceral hatred, her team has been really vigorously pushing oppo research against us,” the same source close to the Scott campaign said, requesting anonymity to speak candidly about sensitive conversations.
The Haley campaign, who did not return a request for comment, has denied promoting any opposition research about the senator.
But Scott’s campaign seemed to take note when The Washington Post published a story last week about the questioned existence of Tim Scott’s girlfriend. The author, Ben Terris, prominently notes in the opening words that the story came to be because “a person working on behalf of one of Scott’s Republican opponents” suggested Terris investigate whether Scott’s girlfriend actually existed, with this person handing over a “dossier” on Scott’s “known personal relationships.”
Speculation over Scott’s personal life has been a bit of a parlor game in the Beltway and on the campaign trail—and it’s occasionally spilled out into public view. Conservative Political Action Conference Chairman Matt Schlapp once responded to the prospect of Trump picking Scott as his vice president by blurting out, “You think he picks a gay vice president?” (The comment was published in that same story on Scott’s girlfriend.)
While Scott’s allies told The Daily Beast they weren’t bothered by the girlfriend story, some are more weary over a continued escalation of attacks behind the scenes.
“I think it speaks to a desperation,” the source close to the Scott campaign said. “She thought that she could own this state, and Senator Scott came out of nowhere and took a lot of the infrastructure from her.”
Scott, who entered the race over three months after Haley, rolled out an impressive slate of in-state endorsements that quickly grew to 147 among South Carolina lawmakers.
Given the former president’s robust support in the party—sitting atop the field with 40 to 50 percent support in South Carolina polling over the past few months—many GOP operatives see only enough room for one of Scott or Haley on the ballot in their home state.
“Listen, Trump’s running away with this thing and DeSantis is flailing out, but Tim has some hope in Iowa,” a GOP strategist supporting neither candidate told The Daily Beast. “Eventually, one of them is probably gonna have to drop out, and eventually one is gonna take the other on. You can’t keep ignoring the candidate who’s taking up your lane.”
For South Carolinians who know and like both of them, the next few months are going to be tense.
Nate Leupp, chairman of South Carolina’s Fourth District Republican Club—and a former chairman of the Greenville County GOP—told The Daily Beast that the grassroots don’t always see the more cutthroat side of South Carolina politicians. “But then we become well aware of them through, um, through other political actions they have, between politicians and friends.”
That’s a diplomatic way of saying that, despite campaigning together in South Carolina for Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential bid, the pair have never necessarily been close. In such a heavily Republican state, “we just fight it out in the primaries, and we’re used to water going under the bridge” after, Leupp said.
Leupp, who’s known Haley since she was a state representative and Scott since he launched a brief run for lieutenant governor during the 2010 cycle, noted that the duo have had some bad blood since they started looking at each other as rivals.
“The moment that both realized that they could run for the highest office in the land, that would obviously start any division,” he said.
One of the other divisions between the two, sources said, comes from their different roles.
When she was governor, Haley had to make executive decisions that she knew were going to piss someone off. Meanwhile, in the words of Leupp, Scott has largely “voted the Republican line” during his time in Congress, keeping him above the fray with some otherwise unruly constituencies in the state.
One of those constituencies is the state legislature’s Freedom Caucus, which remains ardently pro-Trump. The former president recently delivered a video address to more than 130 of the state and local lawmakers in the increasingly influential voting bloc’s network, which is to the right of the House Freedom Caucus in Congress.
GOP sources who spoke to The Daily Beast said losing South Carolina to Trump or another opponent in the 2024 field would certainly be an embarrassment. However, the source close to the Scott campaign said there’s a plausible scenario where both candidates remain on the ballot all the way through their home state.
An underperformance in Iowa would trigger major pressure on either Scott or Haley to drop out, allies of the campaigns said, but should both of them mount a strong finish in the top three or four, they’ll keep the fight going to New Hampshire.
“That’s where we’ll find out who’s in the catbird seat,” the source close to the Scott campaign said, “and when things could really get interesting.”
Given Trump’s continued sway over the party, their relationships with the former president could also help determine which candidate ultimately prevails—whether at the ballot box, or in a future Republican administration.
“You gotta remember, Trump has not attacked Tim Scott and he’s told people not to attack Tim Scott,” the GOP strategist said. “Nikki, on the other hand, is seen as a disloyal flip-flopper. I think she has enemies out there, both in South Carolina and in Trumpworld.”
In the end, whoever has fewer knives out for them from other factions of the GOP may end up coming out on top.
“So I think Tim has the edge,” the strategist said, “because he has fewer enemies.”