COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Republican presidential candidate Tim Scott abruptly announced late Sunday that he was dropping out of the 2024 race, a development that surprised his donors and stunned his campaign staff just two months before the start of voting in Iowa’s leadoff GOP caucuses.
The South Carolina senator, who entered the race in May with high hopes, made the surprise announcement on Fox News Channel’s “Sunday Night in America” with Trey Gowdy, one of his closest friends. The news was so unanticipated that one campaign worker told The Associated Press that campaign staff found out Scott was dropping out by watching the show.
“I love America more today than I did on May 22,” Scott said Sunday. “But when I go back to Iowa, it will not be as a presidential candidate. I am suspending my campaign. I think the voters who are the most remarkable people on the planet have been really clear that they’re telling me, ‘Not now, Tim.’”
Scott’s impending departure comes as he and the rest of the GOP field have struggled in a race that has been dominated by former President Donald Trump. Despite four criminal indictments and a slew of other legal challenges, Trump continues to poll far ahead of his rivals, leading many in the party to conclude the race is effectively over, barring some stunning change of fortune.
Scott, in particular, has had trouble gaining traction in the polls, despite millions spent on his behalf by high-profile donors. In his efforts to run a positive campaign, he was often overshadowed by other candidates — particularly on the debate stage, where he seemed to disappear as others sparred. It was unclear whether Scott would qualify for the upcoming fourth debate, which will require higher polling numbers and more donors.
Scott is the second major candidate to leave the race since the end of October. Former Vice President Mike Pence suspended his campaign two weeks ago, announcing at a Republican Jewish Coalition gathering in Las Vegas that “This is not my time.” Pence, however, was polling behind Scott and was in a far more precarious financial position.
Scott said he wouldn’t immediately be endorsing any of his remaining Republican rivals.
“The voters are really smart,” Scott said. “The best way for me to be helpful is to not weigh in on who they should endorse.”
He also appeared to rule out serving as vice president, saying the No. 2 slot “has never been on my to-do list for this campaign, and it’s certainly not there now.”
Scott’s departure leaves Nikki Haley, Trump’s first United Nations ambassador and the former South Carolina governor, as the sole South Carolinian in the race. As governor, Haley appointed Scott — then newly elected to his second U.S. House term — to the Senate in 2012, and the fact that both were in the 2024 race had created an uncomfortable situation for many of the donors and voters who had supported them both through the years.
It also sparked some unpleasant on-stage moments during the first three GOP debates, with the longtime allies — who for a time had also shared political consultants — trading tense jabs. After the surprise announcement, some of Scott’s donors said they would be switching to back Haley in the primary.
In a post on X on Sunday night, Haley called Scott “a good man of faith and an inspiration to so many,” adding that the GOP primary “was made better by his participation in it.”
Scott’s team was so surprised by his exit that just 13 minutes before he announced his departure, his campaign sent out an email soliciting supporters for donations to further Scott’s “strong leadership and optimistic, positive vision to lead our country forward.” Saying that “EVERYTHING is on the line” to win the White House, the email went on offering readers “ONE LAST CHANCE to donate this weekend and help Tim reach his campaign goal.”
Scott held an all-staff call after the Gowdy interview, explaining his decision to end his bid and reiterating what he said on TV, according to a senior campaign staffer.
But campaign staffers expressed their extreme irritation to the AP in light of the candidate recently shifting staff and money from New Hampshire to Iowa in an effort to boost his standing in the leadoff caucus.
The senior staffer characterized the experience as incredibly frustrating, saying that staff had been working around the clock to accommodate the move, only to completely reverse it. As with the campaign worker who said Scott’s staff found out about his departure by watching the senator on TV, the worker was not authorized to discuss the internal deliberations publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Many donors were surprised and saddened by Scott’s announcement, though they praised him for stepping aside to give Republicans a chance to coalesce behind a Trump alternative.
Eric Levine, a New York-based donor who was raising money for Scott, said he was caught totally off-guard.
“He stepped aside with dignity. He is a true patriot. I could not have been prouder to have supported him,” said Levine, a vocal Trump critic. He said he would now be supporting Haley.
“She is our last best hope to defeat Donald Trump and then take back the White House,” Levine said.
Chad Walldorf, a South Carolina businessman and longtime Scott supporter and donor, thought Scott’s decision was in the best interest of the Republican Party.
“I’ve always thought the field needs to winnow quickly so we can get behind a good alternative to Trump, so I greatly respect Tim for unselfishly stepping aside rather than waiting until too late,” said Walldorf, who added he’s now backing Haley.
Mikee Johnson, a South Carolina businessman and Scott donor who served as his national finance co-chairman, told the AP that he knew before Scott’s TV appearance that he would be suspending his campaign.
“He is honorable, knows his supporters were prepared to support him for the duration, and was not going to ask that of his friends and supporters,” said Johnson. “He is energized and ready for the next phase. … I told him I did not have a single regret.”
Many of Scott’s former 2024 rivals issued statements Sunday night wishing him well.
On social media, DeSantis commended him as a “strong conservative with bold ideas about how to get our country back on track,” adding, “I respect his courage to run this campaign and thank him for his service to America and the U.S. Senate.”
Pence called Scott “a man of faith and integrity who brought his optimistic vision and inspiring personal story to people all across this country.”
Trump’s campaign did not immediately respond to news of Scott’s exit. But Trump has been careful not to criticize the senator, leading some in his orbit to consider Scott a potential vice presidential pick.
The former president and his team had welcomed a large field of rivals, believing they would splinter the anti-Trump vote and prevent a clear challenger from emerging.
Scott’s next political move is unclear. He has said that his 2022 Senate reelection would be his last and has at times been mentioned as a possible candidate for South Carolina governor, which is next up in 2026. Gov. Henry McMaster, a Trump backer, is term-limited, and the GOP primary is expected to be heated.
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Steve Peoples in New York contributed to this report.