COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — As she introduced South Carolina’s next senator, then-Gov. Nikki Haley said her decision to appoint Tim Scott was “pretty simple.”
“This man loves South Carolina,” Haley said of Scott, a congressman at the time. “He is very aware that what he does and every vote he makes affects South Carolina and affects our country. And so it was with that that I knew he was the right person.”
Scott was just as effusive, praising Haley as someone who governed with “conviction” and “integrity.” He pledged to “get on the team with Nikki Haley to make sure that all of America continues to hear the great things about South Carolina.”
Haley and Scott are forever linked by that announcement at the South Carolina Statehouse on a winter day in 2012, cementing their status as rising stars in a Republican Party frustrated by Barack Obama’s reelection just a month earlier. But nearly a dozen years later, they find themselves poised to run against each other for the GOP presidential nomination. Haley has already launched a campaign, and Scott took steps last week toward initiating a bid of his own.
Both carry historic potential, with Haley aiming to become the first woman and first person of Indian descent to win the presidency. Scott would be the first Black Republican president. But much of the race’s early attention has focused on former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is presumed to be on the cusp of announcing his own bid.
As the GOP field begins to take shape, the potential of a Haley-Scott faceoff is putting some of their mutual supporters in the critical early voting state of South Carolina in a conundrum as they weigh which candidate to support.
One of those longtime donors and backers is Mikee Johnson, a South Carolina businessman who has known Haley since high school and serves on the board of her Original Six Foundation, which provides after-school programming and literacy resources for children in rural South Carolina school districts. But like many Republicans across the state, Johnson has also been a friend and ally of Scott, whom he said he’ll back over Haley in the presidential race.
“I really admire all the things Nikki’s done, her friendship’s important to me, but at this point, I think his style is more what I would like to see our leaders — not just our president — aspire to getting things done in the style and approach that he goes about it,” Johnson said.
Another is David Wilkins, who was South Carolina’s state House speaker when Haley was in the Legislature, later chairing her gubernatorial transition team and now serving alongside her on the board of Clemson University. Saying he has the “greatest respect” for Scott, whom he has supported in his Senate bids, Wilkins — who also served as ambassador to Canada under President George W. Bush — said his bond is stronger with Haley.
“He’s an outstanding senator, and we’re very proud of him here in South Carolina,” Wilkins said, of Scott. “I just have a very strong friendship with her. It’s not choosing one person over another. It’s just going with the person that I believe in, that I’m dear friends with, somebody I’ve known for 20 years.”
The intertwined relationships of those who have supported both Haley and Scott mirror the politicians themselves, whose shared political history dates back further than the pivotal Senate appointment. The two worked alongside each other for a single term in the state House of Representatives, after Scott joined Haley in the chamber following the 2008 election.
That next session, they both signed onto a number of resolutions and bills, including a constitutional amendment — ultimately approved by the state’s voters — guaranteeing workers the right to voting by secret ballot on union representation.
They also teamed up, along with a number of co-sponsors, on other less successful bills, including measures to audit state education funds, endow “rights of due process and equal protection” at fertilization and a “truth in spending” measure for all state and local government entities. Other measures that didn’t pass would have made several statewide positions like the agriculture commissioner, secretary of state and education superintendent appointed, not elected, positions.
In 2010, Scott briefly ran for lieutenant governor, ultimately abandoning that pursuit to seek the 1st District seat being vacated by retiring Rep. Henry Brown. At that time, South Carolina’s governor and lieutenant governor were elected separately; had Scott stayed in that race and won it, he and Haley would have served together as South Carolina’s top officeholders.
But two years later, when Jim DeMint abruptly announced his resignation from the Senate, the paths of Haley and Scott crossed yet again. Rob Godfrey, a longtime Haley adviser who served for a time as her chief spokesperson, said the governor’s process was deliberate, making a short list that included Scott, Rep. Trey Gowdy and former first lady Jenny Sanford, ex-wife of former Gov. Mark Sanford, who was Haley’s predecessor.
Also on the short list was former Attorney General Henry McMaster, one of Haley’s 2010 rivals who went on to become one of her biggest backers and eventual successor. Catherine Templeton, a labor lawyer who Haley appointed to lead the state’s labor and then public health agencies, was under consideration as well.
“She took every one of those candidates and their background and their credentials and what they offered the state seriously during this process, and at the end of the day determined that there was one person who was best suited to take on the job and carry on the legacy of Sen. DeMint but also blaze his own trail,” Godfrey said.
In picking Scott, Haley said she wanted to appoint someone she felt could retain the seat in subsequent elections, and who was in the same ideological vein as DeMint.
“It’s not how much political experience you have, it’s about the fight,” Haley said at the time. “It’s about the philosophical beliefs. It’s about knowing what you’re sent to Washington to do.”
Scott more than proved Haley correct, winning a 2014 special election to fill the remaining two years of DeMint’s term, then winning a full one of his own two years later. Last fall, Scott won reelection by more than 20 percentage points, a Senate race he had long said would be his last.
“Absolutely, she was thinking into the future,” said Chad Connelly, who was state GOP chair at the time.
That future is now, as Haley and Scott both prepare to compete against each other for the nation’s highest office. A day after Haley’s announcement, Scott embarked on a “listening tour.” Haley declined to comment about Scott when asked by The Associated Press.
“I have such great respect for Nikki Haley,” Scott said in a recent interview, adding he hadn’t spoken with Haley before launching his exploratory committee. “She is a strong, powerful force for good.”
He also dismissed any awkwardness in running against the Republican who appointed him to the Senate, and with whom he would be in direct competition in vying for the very voters that had elected them both statewide.
“You put your uniform on, you shake hands, and you go on the field. You fight for good. You fight to win the game,” Scott said. “You take your uniform off, you shake hands and you continue down the road.”
“We were friends before,” he added. “We’ll be friends after.”
Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP
Associated Press writer Tom Beaumont in Marion, Iowa, contributed to this report.