Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, joined by Sen. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, left, and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, speaks at the Capitol on Sept. 29, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
At this point in the presidential election cycle, all we have is speculation. With eight months before the first caucus in Iowa and nine months until the first primary in New Hampshire, all any of us can do is read tea leaves if we’re trying to predict the political future. Fortunately, tea leaves abound.
Plenty of those tea leaves are floating around former President Donald Trump and his bushel basket of legal troubles. Despite being heavily invested in lawyers, the former president still has a comfortable lead in Republican presidential polls. His followers, it seems, are the forgiving type because, let’s be honest now, who among us hasn’t paid hush money to a porn star or instigated an attempt to overthrow the government?
There’s an ever-growing field of candidates who are counting on the president’s legal troubles and bombastic nature to cause Republican primary voters to search for an alternative. The Republican field gets more crowded by the day, so far sporting Trump, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, radio host Larry Elder and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. There are some heavy hitters waiting in the wings, including former Vice President Mike Pence.
Another candidate appeared recently in the person of South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott. News reports about Scott’s announcement noted his upbeat message, religious faith and conservative values. Scott, the Senate’s only Black Republican, must have something special, because he has the endorsement of both of South Dakota’s senators.
According to Politico, Mike Rounds was the first sitting senator this cycle to endorse a Republican presidential candidate other than Trump. At this writing, Trump has the support of 11 Senate Republicans. Some, like Tommy Tuberville of Alabama and J.D. Vance of Ohio, he helped elect. Others, like Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Mike Braun of Indiana, have been longtime acolytes.
Rounds, who has compared Scott to Ronald Reagan, has not always had a pleasant relationship with former President Trump. Last January, Rounds had the temerity to say that Joe Biden won the presidential election. He also asserted that there was no indication of widespread fraud in the election.
This got under Trump’s skin, causing the former president to publicly say that the only reason Rounds felt comfortable making such comments was because Trump helped get him re-elected in 2020. He went on to call the South Dakota senator a “jerk.”
South Dakota’s senior senator, John Thune, has also endorsed Scott’s presidential aspiration, leading a prayer for Scott at his announcement event. Thune said that Scott has a message of hope and optimism. Like Rounds, Thune has also been in Trump’s crosshairs.
When Thune didn’t fall in line with Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, Trump called him a RINO (Republican in name only) and dubbed him “Mitch’s boy” since Thune serves as second in command to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
So, getting back to those tea leaves, what does it mean when two veteran senators from the same state, well-liked within their caucus, popular in a state that twice voted for Trump, choose to endorse someone other than Donald Trump in the Republican presidential primary?
Well, it probably doesn’t mean much in the primary. Those endorsements cause some early headlines for Scott and that’s just what his longshot campaign needs. Endorsements, however, don’t always turn into votes. In Trump’s first run for the GOP nomination, he didn’t start to rack up endorsements until he began to win primaries and elected officials could tell which way the wind was blowing. In that election cycle, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky had the endorsement of Mitch McConnell and ended up dropping out of the race after the Iowa caucuses.
For South Dakota, the early endorsement of Scott by the state’s two senators means that he may be worth taking a look at during the primary. Maybe he is a viable alternative for Republicans worn down by Trump’s sketchy ethics and bullying tactics. There must be something there if Rounds and Thune are already fans.
For South Dakota’s senators, however, their endorsement of Tim Scott is an act of courage. Trump is known to carry a grudge and punish his enemies. By throwing their support to the South Carolina senator, Rounds and Thune set themselves up for long years of torment should Trump be elected in 2024.
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