COLUMBIA, S.C. — Shortly after she announced her presidential bid, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley called her high school classmate and longtime GOP donor Mikee Johnson. He cut straight to the chase in what he described as a difficult chat: He would back Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), if he ran.
“Her last comment to me was: ‘I’ll still be here when you see a different direction,’” Johnson, who is national finance co-chair for Scott’s campaign, said in an interview, adding that Haley handled the news well. “I’ve just been with her a long time. And it was a hard, hard conversation. And it was very uncomfortable for me. But I was very certain of what I wanted to do, it just still wasn’t easy to tell a friend that.”
Chad Walldorf, whom Haley named as chair to the Board of Economic Advisors when she was governor, was in a similar situation. After praising Scott in an interview with a reporter, he sent an email to Haley informing her of his plans to back him. Haley offered the same response, he recalled, saying she would welcome the support of Walldorf and his wife “any time if we changed our minds.”
Warner Peacock, a former donor to both candidates, told an assistant to Scott that this election is not one where he wants to back multiple candidates, and that he was picking Haley. “I frankly don’t know what Tim did [before being elected] other than I think he played college football, but I know he does not have the breadth of experience that she does,” said Peacock in an interview. He called both “high quality people” and said the Scott team was understanding of his decision.
As Scott prepares to formally kick off his campaign Monday in North Charleston, roughly 20 miles from where Haley launched her bid in February, the long-overlapping circles of the two Republicans are coming sharply into focus — and stoking tensions in this early state where everyone knows everyone in local politics. The two barrier-breaking Republicans climbed the state’s political ladder on parallel timelines but never had to compete for the same job — until now.
While allies insist they maintain a cordial relationship, and neither has said a bad word publicly about the other, some on both sides of the divide privately view the other with increasing wariness and see a heated competition for home state support, according to Republicans in the state. Both are considered long shots on their home turf against former president Donald Trump, and many doubt both will make it as far as the first-in-the-South GOP primary, making the scramble for support even more intense.
Katon Dawson, the former chairman of the state Republican Party who is backing Haley, said Scott has “got a clear shot at governor if he wants it” but that Haley is more battle-tested. He added that there is a “huge difference” between being a governor and senator.
“Tim hasn’t had as contentious or tough races as Nikki has,” Dawson said. “He just hasn’t. Tim’s hardest race was his race for Congress. The rest of them have been cake. Nikki’s, every one of them, just disastrously hard.”
Neither Haley nor Scott attended the state GOP convention Saturday, a striking absence from an event that typically draws presidential candidates. Intraparty fighting was expected in the run-up to the gathering, prompting some Republicans to say it would be risky to enter such volatile terrain. State GOP chairman Drew McKissick won reelection, turning back efforts by challengers to unseat him.
The Scott and Haley campaigns declined to comment for this story.
Haley has gained little traction since launching her bid and now must contend with a new opponent with a hefty $22 million war chest. And Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is polling second to Trump in state and national surveys of the GOP race, is expected to officially enter the race in coming days, posing an additional challenge to those such as Haley and Scott, who are polling in the single digits.
Interviews with South Carolina donors and consultants show a sense of state pride that both Scott and Haley are running for the White House and a hope that they represent where the GOP should be, politically. But they also revealed how personal the competition has become.
“In a small state like South Carolina there will absolutely be overlap among supporters and donors of two people who are as popular and whose careers have spanned the same trajectory,” said Rob Godfrey, a South Carolina-based consultant and a former Haley deputy chief of staff, who is neutral. “There’s likely some anxiety among those common donors and supporters about choosing sides so I would anticipate a bit of reluctance for those people to jump into the race immediately but for those who do I’m sure they won’t be forgotten by either candidate.”
Haley, 51, and Scott, 57, overlapped for one session in the South Carolina State House in the 2009-2010 session. In his book, “Opportunity Knocks,” Scott wrote that as members they maintained a “healthy respect for one another” but wrote that their “circles never really came together those two years in Columbia.”
Garry Smith, a Republican who served in the State House with both of them and suggested he’d be happy to support whichever one makes it through in the primary, said they took different approaches.
“She was not afraid to rock the boat when necessary … and was successful in many ways in that regard,” Smith recalled, referring to Haley’s clashes with leadership during her time in the State House, which included her push for legislation that required lawmakers to vote on the record, rather than voice vote. “Tim was someone who knew the system, knew how to work within the system, two very different personalities in that regard at how they actually operated.”
Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), who served alongside both Haley and Scott in the State House, said he gave Trump a heads-up before he endorsed Haley and introduced her at her campaign launch in Charleston in February, but not Scott. “Had he announced I would have,” Norman said of Scott, whom he called a good friend.
Haley and Scott both ran for higher office in 2010, with Haley winning the governorship and becoming the first female Asian American governor and Scott winning his House seat. He became the first Black Republican who was elected to the U.S. House from South Carolina in more than a century.
“It was a big night for me, but it was a bigger night for South Carolina. On the same runoff night, Tim Scott, a fellow member of the State House, beat South Carolina icon Strom Thurmond’s son for the chance to become South Carolina’s first black Republican congressman in over a century,” Haley wrote in her memoir “Can’t Is Not an Option.”
“Tim Scott’s and my victories generated a lot of national attention,” she continued. “The stories were all about how South Carolina was changing and how the Republican Party was changing, and those are good things.”
Haley played a direct role in Scott’s next step, when then-Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) announced in 2012 that he’d leave Congress to become president of the Heritage Foundation. DeMint made clear privately and publicly that he wanted Scott as his replacement, according to a former DeMint senior adviser. DeMint could not be reached for comment.
“It was important to Jim, Tim was Black that was an important part of it, he’s got a great story to tell about conservatism, growing up poor that you’re not just inherently going to be a Democrat,” the former adviser said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Haley ultimately appointed Scott to the Senate, stressing at the time that she picked Scott because of his accomplishments, not his race. “It is important to me, as a minority female, that Congressman Scott earned this seat,” Haley said. “He earned this seat for the person that he is. He earned this seat with the results he has shown.”
The 2015 mass killing by a white supremacist at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston was also a seminal moment for Haley and Scott. Scott in his book recalls delivering a tearful speech on the Senate floor, reading the names of the victims at the predominantly Black church and attending eight funerals and a wake.
Shortly before Haley’s news conference announcing her decision to take down the Confederate flag from the state grounds, she summoned members of the congressional delegation, including Scott, to inform them of her decision.
“I told my colleagues that if they chose to stand with me, I would be forever grateful. If they decided not to join me, I said, I would never let anyone know we had discussed it,” she wrote of the exchange in her book, “With All Due Respect.”
During the news conference later that day, Scott stood next to her as she announced the flag would come down.
“I stand in front of you, a minority female governor twice elected by the people of South Carolina,” Haley said at the conference. “Behind me stands my friend Sen. Tim Scott, elected by those same people as one of just two African American members of the United States Senate.”
In 2016 the two joined forces to campaign for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in South Carolina. The three were seen by some in the party as rising stars with the ability to chart a new course for the GOP. “You’re going to look at what the new conservative movement looks like — because it looks like a Benetton commercial,” Haley said at one rally.
Trump defeated Rubio by 10 percentage points in the South Carolina primary, en route to winning the nomination and the presidency.
The GOP divisions that flared in that primary have in many ways intensified in the state and beyond, leaving Haley and Scott to navigate the turmoil around them, on top of running against each other. And nowhere was that turmoil more evident than at this weekend’s state party convention, which Haley and Scott skipped.
“In any other year — every Republican convention I’ve ever been to in a year leading up to a primary — every speaker has been a presidential candidate,” said former South Carolina GOP executive director Alex Stroman, who is undecided in the race. “I think that it’s probably wise for folks just to kind of stay away from the convention.”
Some Haley allies have narrowed in on her experience as an executive and lack of D.C. service as an area of distinction from the other South Carolinian.
“She’s had executive leadership and she’s had, obviously, international experience as a U.N. ambassador, and Tim just hasn’t had that. I’m not saying he couldn’t do it if he had the opportunity,” said Peacock, a Haley appointee to the South Carolina Jobs-Economic Development Authority, who now resides in Florida and remains plugged into South Carolina politics.
Scott’s allies, however, say that he has an inspirational personal story that embodies conservative values and are betting that running on a message of optimism and his Christian faith will distinguish him from the field. He is expected to also tout his work in the Senate on opportunity zones, which gave tax breaks to wealthy individuals to encourage investment in low-income areas, as well as on tax and criminal justice issues. Over the last two years, Scott has raised millions and campaigned for his GOP colleagues.
“There’s a time and place for everybody, predicated on their style and it’s my belief there’s probably a great time and place for Nikki and her style of management,” Johnson said. “Then there’s Tim’s style and right now I’m just of the belief that the country’s in need of his style.”
Former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, who hasn’t yet endorsed, suggested the publicly polite dynamic between Haley and Scott could shift as the race heats up.
“It’s been a cordial relationship over the years but all of that can certainly change when you compete for a vote,” he said.