ABBEVILLE — U.S. Sen. Tim Scott apologized for his abrupt departure to the two dozen or so people who came to his meeting in Abbeville County.
Scott’s day was scheduled to the minute, and he had two more stops to make: hosting the governor’s re-election kickoff and attending the state GOP’s big summer barbecue.
Eight months into office, Scott has quickly and quietly firmed up a position as one of the most powerful Republicans in a state dominated by the GOP. Politicians from the governor down to the local level want to be seen with him, and Scott usually obliges. The Abbeville meeting finished the goal he had set when he was appointed senator in January: to have an official event in all 46 South Carolina counties, creating a valuable network for a man who spent his elective career in Charleston.
The biggest sign of Scott’s strength may come next year, when he will run to finish the last two years of Jim DeMint’s term. There’s no hint of primary opposition, despite a history in South Carolina of defeat for appointees to U.S. Senate seats. Meanwhile, Scott’s Senate mate, Lindsey Graham, already has three announced challengers in the Republican primary as he seeks a third term.
“I didn’t know what to think when he came into office. I hadn’t heard much about him,” said L.O. Ashley, who came to the Abbeville event to meet Scott. “But he’s a real sharp guy. I’m impressed. He really wants to work for South Carolina.”
Scott’s allure is built on personality more than record. Five years ago he was on Charleston County Council, and he spent two years in the U.S. House before Gov. Nikki Haley appointed him to the Senate. He hasn’t made waves in Washington during his first eight months, remaining a dependable ally for the conservatives in his party. He hasn’t gotten involved in major legislation and rarely speaks on the Senate floor.
“I’m still figuring things out,” Scott said. “The House is more like game day on a college football Saturday. The Senate is more like a classical concert where we haven’t learned to play together yet.”
Haley’s appointment made Scott the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction. The image of the daughter of Indian immigrants appointing the African-American man raised by a single mother was a welcome image for Republicans trying to broaden their party’s appeal.
And Haley’s decision to have Scott introduce her at her Aug. 26 re-election kickoff was no surprise. She cited his appointment as one of the best decisions in her first three years in office.
That same day, Scott also attended a barbecue held by U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan as one of two main guests. He received a standing ovation from the crowd of 900.
Scott frequently tells the story of his mom working 16-hour days as she raised him and his brother. He worked as an insurance agent and credits his success in life to his family and his faith — big draws in a conservative, heavily Christian state.
“He comes across as genuine, conservative and God-fearing, and I know that resonates,” Pickens County Republican Party Chairman Phillip Bowers said. “People want genuine, heartfelt connection with elected officials and that can be hard to get.”
Scott does have his detractors. Even if he has no Republican primary opposition, it appears South Carolina Democrats should have a legitimate nominee for a Senate seat for the first time since 2004. One potential candidate is Rick Wade, who worked with the state’s last Democratic governor, Jim Hodges, more than a decade ago and more recently in President Barack Obama’s administration. A second is Democratic state Sen. John Scott from Columbia.
John Scott said that Tim Scott is a perfect example of how leaders in South Carolina put style in front of substance. He said Tim Scott has no ideas to improve the lives of poor South Carolinians who continue to watch education get worse and job growth and income levels remain stagnant.
“It’s all sound bite stuff he puts out there without substance. ‘I’m going to lower you taxes. I’m for less government,’ ” John Scott said.
For his part, Tim Scott doesn’t want to talk about building a power base. He said he is still learning the ropes and points out that just because he doesn’t have a Republican opponent now, doesn’t mean he won’t have one when filing for the race ends in March.
“It’s still six months before filing for the primary. It’s not time for us to be declaring some type of joy over not having an opponent,” Scott said.
The senator said his tour of the state has been rewarding. His office sent out a list of nearly 60 events and gatherings he has been to since becoming a senator, including a trip to a NASCAR race, tours of a Coca-Cola bottling plant and a Walgreens warehouse, and speeches at four high schools.
Scott also has gone to town halls in predominantly Democratic counties. He said he wants people to know he will be a senator for everyone.
“I’ve been to a lot of places where people were like, ‘Really, you’re coming? There aren’t a lot of Republican voters. You do know that right?’ ” Scott said. “Of course I am coming. I don’t represent Republican voters. I represent the state of South Carolina. I love Republicans who vote for Tim Scott, and I love people who don’t. I’ll learn something from everybody.”
Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP