Tim Scott Could Have Been Ted Cruz. Here’s Why He Passed.

Not every new conservative firebrand in the Senate feels the need to seek the spotlight like the Texan does.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 11: Senator Tim Scott (R-SC), speaks at the 2013 Values Voter Summit, held by the Family Research Council, on October 11, 2013 in Washington, DC. The summit, which goes for three days, is attended by a number of Republican senators and high profile conservative voices in American politics. 
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Ben Terris
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Ben Terris
Oct. 24, 2013, 5 p.m.

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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.”

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