Y’all make me want to preach,” Sen. Tim Scott said, walking animatedly on the stage at the Values Voters Summit early this month. “I’ll tell ya what. I’m getting kinda excited over here. Can I get an amen?” The crowd of religious, conservative, and mostly older white voters hollered back. It may be the closest thing any of them ever get to a black church—and it was a dream come true.
“You gotta understand that my momma wanted a preacher and she got a politician, so let us pray,” Scott said, getting down on one knee and letting out a growl that would have made Howard Dean blush. Scott knows how to work a crowd and put himself at the center of attention. Swept into the House as part of the 2010 tea-party wave, the freshman from South Carolina earned himself a spot at the leadership table and seemed to draw strength from the scrum of journalists that followed him.
But what’s even more interesting is that ever since Scott was appointed to the Senate 10 months ago, he’s also made it clear he knows how to stay out of the limelight—which was not necessarily how it had to be. He sits in the old seat of former Sen. and tea-party godfather Jim DeMint and has been cited by Sen. Ted Cruz as part of the “new generation of great leaders” in the upper chamber. And although his ideological stances are in line with those of the junior senator from Texas, Scott still comes across as the anti-Cruz.
“Figuring out how to fix the system takes a different approach than just learning how to burn it down,” Scott said in an interview. “That may just get you a fire.”
Scott has walked a delicate line between the tea-party firebrand he was in the House and the unseen-and-unheard role that freshman senators have traditionally assumed. Yes, Scott would like to see Obamacare defunded, but you didn’t hear him saying so as part of Cruz’s 21-hour filibuster-like attack. He voted against the recent deal to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling. But unlike some of his conservative colleagues, he also voted to at least move the measure to the Senate floor.
“I can get a lot of press by jumping on TV for issues that inflame the electorate, but I’m really looking at how we create the country for the 22nd century, not just for now,” he said. Scott is playing the long game: meeting with senators on both sides of the aisle on issues he’d like to tackle down the road and learning the process, knowing that both efforts will pay off when it comes time to write legislation. Cruz might be more famous, but it will probably be a while before anything he writes sees time on the Senate docket.
Like all Republicans in Congress, Scott says that reining in government spending is a top priority. But he also plans to make a name for himself on the education issue. Expect proposals to do away with such things as Common Core, the national initiative aimed at standardizing state curricula.
Scott, an African-American, is also taking the time to try to diversify the Republican Party, speaking at historically black schools. When Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky tried to do a similar thing at Howard University earlier this year, he was basically laughed out of the building.
“He’s not going to let one specific issue or land mine get in his way,” said Katon Dawson, the former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. “Maybe once he has 14 or 16 years of seniority, he’ll start throwing bombs.”
It probably won’t take that long, but the point still resonates, especially in South Carolina. Unlike Cruz, Scott has to face voters twice in the next four years (if he wins in 2014—which is widely expected—he will still have to run in 2016, when DeMint’s term would have been up). A recent poll of Republican voters conducted by Clemson University found that only 6 percent of them disapprove of the job Scott is doing. To put that in perspective, Scott’s embattled colleague, Lindsey Graham, had a 36 percent disapproval rating in that same survey. Nationally, Cruz has a 21 percent disapproval rating among GOP voters, according to a recent Pew poll.
Having so few people unhappy with you is an accomplishment given the current state of congressional politics, and it’s especially true in Scott’s home state. Being an amalgamation of evangelical and business interests keeps the Palmetto State solidly Republican, but it also makes it exceedingly difficult to please all of the people all of the time. In 2008, Buddy Witherspoon challenged Graham from the right and won 33 percent of the votes in the GOP primary. On the other hand, DeMint faced opposition from the center in 2002 when his opponent won 38 percent of the vote.
Graham has already drawn three primary opponents in 2014. Scott? Zero. Part of what makes Scott such a good politician is that he’s been at it for a deceptively long time. As part of that 2010 tea-party wave, Scott came into the House with a new class of citizen-legislators, neophytes whose last line on their résumés might read NFL lineman, auctioneer, radio personality, or funeral-home director. But Scott has been in some sort of elective office since he ran for the Charleston City Council in 1995. Which means he has the skills to win—and to keep his job.
“He knows not to pick fights that aren’t winnable,” Dawson said. “There’s nothing wrong with picking a fight, but Republicans would like to win one every once in a while.”
This article appears in the October 26, 2013, edition of National Journal Magazine as Still Waters.