South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott visited Arizona’s southern border last week where, after listening to harrowing stories of hardship on the path through Mexico to the United States, he declared, “The most compassionate thing we can do is tell people, ‘Don’t come to our border illegally.’”
Recounting his own recent tour of the US-Mexico border, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis that same day told an Iowa audience that if he were elected president, certain illegal entrants “are going to end up stone cold dead” because they would be lethally shot by his border patrol and military.
Perhaps no two Republican presidential contenders have more disparate approaches to courting primary voters than Scott and DeSantis. On matters of policy, the pair are aligned more often than not. But their messaging reflects diametrically opposing assessments of what GOP voters want in an alternative to former President Donald Trump, the current front-runner for the party’s 2024 nomination.
Scott leads with optimism and empathy and preaches unity. DeSantis reflexively counterpunches at all comers and stokes political divisions with promises to “destroy leftism.” DeSantis has vowed to end the political fights Trump started by winning them. Scott is betting Republicans want to pick their battles more selectively.
Their contrasting styles have become all the more apparent lately as the two have tussled in public on several fronts and moved closer to each other in the polls heading into the first GOP primary debate later this month. Over the next week, they’ll visit the Iowa State Fair, where would-be caucus-goers will have an up-close look at their distinct deliveries. Less clear, though, is whether Republicans remain animated by the grievance politics championed by Trump and adopted by DeSantis, or if Scott’s sunnier disposition resonates among those GOP voters tired of defeats.
“Voters were angry in the year of Trump, and they wanted someone to express their anger, but I broadcast from Iowa every day and I can’t quite tell yet: Are (Republicans) mad like they were in 2016 or are they just disappointed with the direction of the country,” said Jeff Angelo, who hosts a popular conservative radio show in Iowa. “Is the own-the-lib thing still out there? Or can you be a Tim Scott and say, ‘I know this country is on the wrong track, and I’ll fix it?’”
Polls have offered sometimes conflicting messages for candidates on the mood of Republican voters going into the election. A recent CBS News survey found 69% of likely GOP primary voters said they would prefer that a Republican president “find common ground with Democrats,” while just 22% said they wanted a GOP president who would “investigate and punish Democrats wherever possible.”
But among likely voters who identified as “MAGA Republicans,” a majority felt it was more important for a GOP president to motivate conservatives and Republicans than to appeal to moderates. Most voters who did not identify as “MAGA” said they wanted a nominee who could appeal to moderates and independent voters.
Meanwhile, a new poll from The New York Times/Siena College found 52% of Republican voters preferred a candidate who says the government shouldn’t interfere with what corporations can support, while just 38% said the next GOP nominee should promise to fight corporations that promote a “woke” agenda, as DeSantis has in his clashes with Disney and Bud Light.
Yet, despite those sentiments, Republican voters in key states are still gravitating toward Trump and, to a lesser extent, DeSantis over Scott. The Times/Siena poll of likely Iowa Republican voters showed DeSantis comfortably in second place – though 24 points behind Trump – at 20%, compared with Scott’s 9%.
Amid these data points, harsh and sometimes graphic language continues to be a feature of DeSantis’ stump speech. His comments last week that he planned to “start slitting throats on Day One” at federal agencies should he be elected president drew a rebuke from two top labor unions. He has repeatedly told voters that he saw people “defecate” on the streets of San Francisco when he visited this summer. He often opens his remarks on the road with a joke about cocaine in the White House. Last week, he told Iowa voters “we need to storm Washington” in 2025, an unmistakable bit of trolling aimed at those who use the phrase to describe the violent mob that attacked the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Scott, meanwhile, peppers his remarks with uplifting platitudes about “the dignity of work,” “restoring hope” and limitless possibility. America should be “striving for a more perfect union,” he says, quoting the Constitution’s aspirational preamble. The word “compassion” comes up often – from his campaign launch event through his remarks in Arizona last week.
“We need a president that persuades. We have to do that with commonsense, conservative principles. But we have to have a compassion for people,” Scott said during his kickoff event in North Charleston, South Carolina, in May. “We have to have a compassion for people who don’t agree with us.”
Scott and DeSantis entered the race within one week of each other – Scott at a thoroughly prepared traditional campaign launch event; while DeSantis debuted in a glitchy audio-only Twitter Spaces event, where he shared the mic with Elon Musk and a roving cast of conservative influencers. But only recently have their dueling styles collided in public.
At a campaign event last month in Ankeny, Iowa, Scott, the only Black Republican US senator, waded into the controversy over the new history standards in Florida that require teachers to instruct middle-school students that slaves developed skills that “could be applied for their personal benefit.” But as is typical for Scott, his criticism of DeSantis was reserved.
“People have bad days,” Scott said. “Sometimes they regret what they say. And we should ask them again to clarify their positions.”
Rather than reassess the curriculum amid concerns raised by Black Republicans like Scott, DeSantis and his allies unleashed on them.
“DeSantis crushes Scott for echoing Kamala Harris’s lies,” read one social media post from DeSantis’ campaign.
Days later, the two tangled again on abortion. After Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America released a statement attacking DeSantis for declining to back a 15-week federal abortion ban, the governor’s campaign punched back at the influential anti-abortion organization by likening it to “DC interest groups,” according to a statement reported by Politico.
Scott then issued a veiled shot at DeSantis.
“Republicans should not be retreating on life. We need a national 15-week limit to stop blue states from pushing abortion on demand. [Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America] defends the most fundamental right: life. Without life, nothing else matters. It’s not a special interest. It’s the only interest,” Scott wrote on social media.
Both Scott and DeSantis are competing for the dollars of donors eager to wrest the future of the GOP from Trump. After helping DeSantis raise record sums for his gubernatorial reelection campaign last year, GOP donors have been lukewarm about the Florida Republican of late and some are giving Scott a second look.
DeSantis’ campaign recently signaled it anticipated Scott could become a threat to his presidential aspirations. In a leaked campaign memo last month, the campaign told supporters, “We expect Tim Scott to receive appropriate scrutiny in the weeks ahead.”
Scott’s campaign attributes the South Carolina senator’s growing stature with primary voters to his optimistic outlook.
“Tim Scott is the one candidate in this race with movement and momentum. His consistently conservative record, positive message, and ability to connect with voters everywhere is why the campaign is resonating,” Scott campaign spokesperson Nathan Brand said in a statement to CNN. “It’s clear he’s the one candidate that Democrats fear the most.”
In a statement this week to CNN, DeSantis’ campaign declined to discuss Scott, insisting it is focused on Trump and President Joe Biden.
“This primary is a two-man race between Governor DeSantis and a man running in 2024 on the things he promised to do in 2016 and failed to do,” DeSantis campaign spokesperson Bryan Griffin said. “Governor DeSantis is the only candidate in the race who can beat Joe Biden and implement the agenda we need to reverse this country’s decline and revive its future.”
For its part, Scott’s team is comfortable letting voters see for themselves the apparent differences between the two candidates, a campaign official told CNN. During Scott’s border visit to Arizona last week, farm owner Robby Barkley told the senator he admired him for his “love and passion” for the country.
“That’s what really sets you apart from a lot of the others out there vying for this position,” Barkley said.
Mary Phalen, who wore a DeSantis 2024 sticker last week to an Iowa event featuring DeSantis and Scott among others, said she’s “definitely leaning” toward the Florida governor for the nomination because he’s a “no-nonsense candidate.”
DeSantis, she said, is “not afraid to put up a controversial opinion.”
Despite the differences in their messages, there is apparent crossover appeal among Republicans searching for an alternative to Trump. When Iowan Rob Cromer asked DeSantis about his top choice for a running mate at a restaurant in Vinton, outside Cedar Rapids, DeSantis turned the question on Cromer. He suggested Scott.
“Yeah, good guy, good guy, um, well, thank you, thank you,” DeSantis said from behind the counter. “Appreciate that.”