Republican presidential candidates and their allies sought to capitalize Monday on Tim Scott’s surprise exit from the 2024 presidential race, courting the South Carolina senator’s donors and hoping that a narrowed field would boost an uphill battle to stop former president Donald Trump from marching to renomination.
Scott’s Sunday night announcement — a shock to most of his staff — was a welcome development to Trump foes who have long argued that the GOP must avoid a repeat of 2016, when a large field split the opposition to Trump and helped him storm the party as an outsider. It pushed the contest further toward what many strategists now view as a three-way race between Trump, the runaway favorite, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, both battling for a distant second.
The heated competition played out Monday in part through private conversations, with a sprint to win over members of his network of wealthy patrons in full swing. “Can I connect you with Nikki?” Scott donor Andy Sabin says a Haley campaign staffer asked him early in the morning, after he told reporters he was ready to back her instead. Meanwhile, Trump and DeSantis separately spent time on the phone with Scott and Haley texted with the senator.
But it remains unclear that any Trump alternative can consolidate support in a way that seriously challenges him, with DeSantis and Haley increasingly turning their fire on each other. Trump’s campaign celebrated Monday as Haley announced a $10 million ad reservation in the early nominating states, further threatening DeSantis in Iowa, where he’s staked his candidacy.
“DeSantis and Haley beating each other up — they’re really doing Trump’s work,” said Mike DuHaime, an adviser to former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who’s running a long shot campaign centered in New Hampshire and has gone after Trump most aggressively. Advising Christie’s unsuccessful run in 2016, DuHaime had a front-row seat to the fighting among Trump rivals that ended up aiding the former president.
Still, he said, some things are different this time: Candidates have seen the dangers of being “hands off” with Trump until it’s too late, and the next Republican debate, set for Dec. 6 in Tuscaloosa, Ala., could feature just four candidates — a smaller cohort than the same window in late 2015.
Critics of Trump argue that further consolidation is crucial to have any chance of beating Trump — yet lower-polling rivals such as Christie showed no sign on Monday of stepping out. “We’re certainly not going to do anything until people actually vote … Christie’s going nowhere at this point, because nobody else is really taking [Trump] on,” said DuHaime, who added that Christie on Monday hit the donor requirement for the next debate — more quickly than his team expected.
In addition to speaking by phone with DeSantis and Trump, Scott also talked with Christie and texted with Haley on Monday, according to a person familiar with the matter. But he will not be giving any rivals an endorsement “in the near term,” added this person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. The senator from South Carolina started considering his exit after the third debate, consulting a small number of aides, the person said.
“There were a couple of different milestones coming up, whether it was ad spending, state filings, big events, debates, and looking at all of those and kind of prayer and consideration, he said this isn’t the right time,” this person added, saying the campaign will provide enough money from its bank to “take care of” staff members. They said Scott met with employees in the campaign office on Monday, taking pictures and speaking to his employees about their next steps.
Haley appeared well-positioned on Monday to scoop up prominent Scott donors, some of whom have long relationships with her in South Carolina, where both Haley and Scott made their careers. Her supporters hoped that many of Scott’s voters would also migrate her way as her team makes the case she has the best path to fight Trump beyond Iowa, the first state in the GOP nominating calendar.
“Nikki could beat Biden. Whether or not she can knock out Trump … I don’t know if anybody can knock out Trump. He’s so entrenched,” Sabin said.
Trump did not issue a statement about Scott quitting, as his campaign instead bashed DeSantis and called Haley “birdbrain.”
DeSantis supporters, meanwhile, said Scott’s departure would help the governor consolidate support in Iowa, where he’s poured extensive resources and hopes a strong showing on Jan. 15 will give him momentum for subsequent states. DeSantis, Scott and former vice president Mike Pence — who became the first major candidate to drop out last month — have all focused on Iowa and particularly its evangelical conservatives, who made up nearly two-thirds of GOP caucus-goers in 2016.
But polling a couple weeks ago from the Des Moines Register and its partners suggests that Scott’s departure won’t change the overall dynamics of the race, according to a new analysis of Scott voters’ second choices.
Interviews with voters also underscore that Trump can gain even as his rivals drop out.
“I wasn’t a big fan of Trump in 2016, but he just seems like the best choice now,” said Matthew Wedemeier, an Iowa voter who had signed up to caucus for Scott and was watching Fox News on Sunday night when the senator came on announcing he was quitting the race.
The news surprised and disappointed the warehouse worker who had just seen Scott speak at a Pizza Ranch in Independence, Iowa, about a week and a half earlier. Wedemeier felt there was little chance Scott’s campaign would make it past Iowa — but had hoped he might perform better in his state than expected and offer the party a fresh alternative.
Now, Wedemeier said he’ll pay closer attention to the next debate and consider all the options. But with just over two months left until the Iowa caucuses, he’s started to come around to the one candidate who has dominated.
Donors and prominent Republicans in the early voting states could help winnow the field further. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ move last week to endorse DeSantis — and expectations that Iowa evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats could soon follow — were setbacks to Scott, who had pinned his hopes on the Hawkeye State this fall, according to a person familiar with his campaign.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) also plans to endorse a challenger to Trump and recently said he is likely to announce a pick after Thanksgiving. He told reporters last week that he’s eyeing Haley, DeSantis and Christie. He’s hit the trail with all of them recently.
Sununu weighed his own White House bid earlier this year and then bowed out, promising to help prevent a sprawling group of rivals from once again paving the way for Trump. He argued this month that the field is winnowing faster than in past years but that those remaining must consolidate before Super Tuesday, when a large haul of delegates are decided at once.
“It doesn’t have to happen before Iowa or New Hampshire — Trump could even win Iowa and New Hampshire,” Sununu said.
New Hampshire is expected to vote shortly after Iowa, followed by Nevada’s contest in early February and South Carolina’s GOP primary on Feb. 24. Many states vote on Super Tuesday, on March 5.
Haley’s campaign announced Monday it would reserve a combined $10 million in TV, radio and digital advertising in Iowa and New Hampshire starting the first week of December — positioning her to significantly outspend DeSantis even in the Hawkeye State, where he polls best.
As of Monday afternoon, the pro-Haley super PAC SFA Fund was the largest advertiser in New Hampshire for the rest of the GOP primary, with pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down in second with slightly more than $1 million reserved from Monday through the rest of the cycle.
In Iowa, super PACs supporting Haley, DeSantis and Trump each had more than $2 million in ad reservations going forward, according to AdImpact. DeSantis’s campaign has gone up with its own Iowa ads and has nearly $2 million still set to air there.
In a statement, Haley campaign manager Betsy Ankney said Haley is well-positioned in multiple early nominating states, quipping that “even with a decent showing in Iowa,” DeSantis “can’t afford a cup of coffee at the Red Arrow Diner in New Hampshire and is a mere tourist in South Carolina.”
DeSantis campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo shot back that voters will find that Haley lacks DeSantis’s “extensive record of conservative achievements” and said Haley can’t beat Trump. Romeo said DeSantis is making headway with evangelical Christians in Iowa, where Scott and Pence had been “surging resources.”
DeSantis has geared much of his pitch toward the Trump base, and the latest Des Moines Register poll found that about 40 percent of DeSantis voters in Iowa called Trump their second choice, while 27 percent said their second choice was Haley.
At the same time, a slew of Scott donors said they were throwing their support to Haley shortly after Scott dropped out — suggesting that DeSantis could struggle to win over wealthy Republicans who rallied behind Scott’s optimistic message.
Sabin, who once supported DeSantis before flipping to Scott, argued the Florida governor’s positions on abortion make him “unelectable.” While both Haley and DeSantis have suggested they are open to some federal restrictions on abortion, DeSantis signed a state-level ban on abortions after roughly six weeks of pregnancy that alienated some major donors — while Haley has repeatedly called for “consensus” on an issue that Republicans are still struggling with, as evidenced by this month’s elections nationwide.
“Any Republican that steps into the abortion fight needs their head examined,” Sabin said.
Eric Levine, a New York-based donor who previously donated to Scott’s campaign, said he has committed to fundraising for Haley, someone he believes cannot only beat Trump but also President Biden and help Republicans recover from critical losses in recent races.
Billionaire and former hedge fund owner Stanley Druckenmiller, who had previously donated to Scott and Christie, said he has been “all in for Haley” since August and is now publicly sharing his position as he feels the party needs to unite behind her.
Chad Walldorf, a Scott donor from South Carolina, also said he was switching to Haley and has heard from others from his state who plan to do the same.
“I do think there is a great need for Republicans to coalesce around an alternative quickly,” Walldorf said, “and so I’ve got great respect for Tim for deciding this wasn’t his time and getting out of the race more quickly.”
Dylan Wells contributed to this report.