U.S. Sen. Cory Booker could have a secret weapon in the S.C. Democratic presidential primary election: A Republican.
But as Booker tries to make inroads with Democrats in an increasingly polarized political environment, touting his longstanding friendship with conservative U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., also could be a liability.
How Booker leverages and frames his personal history with Scott will determine whether it is a help or a hindrance.
A New Jersey senator and newly announced contender for his party’s nomination in 2020, Booker is expected to tout his record of working across the aisle as he campaigns in the pivotal early primary state of South Carolina.
One of Booker’s strongest bipartisan relationships is with Scott.
From 2013-2017 — until the election of U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, another Democratic presidential contender — Booker and Scott were the only two black members of the Senate. Beyond their shared experiences as African-Americans, the two men also bonded on a personal level.
“There is a kinship and a bond I felt with Tim almost instantly. A friendship, a commonality of experiences,” Booker said in the fall of 2016.
“He is probably the most competitive person in the (Democratic) field,” Scott told McClatchy Monday evening, hinting he had spoken to Booker since his announcement. “He is incredibly smart and has a passion for people that is undeniable. His strengths are his intellect, his savvy and a willingness to do what he believes is the right thing.”
The Booker-Scott friendship led to collaboration on legislation that was signed into law as part of the 2017 Republican tax bill, creating tax incentives for businesses making long-term investments in some of the country’s poorest communities, or “Opportunity Zones.”
The two senators worked together on overhauling the nation’s criminal justice system and increasing access to apprenticeships. They also have teamed up with Harris on legislation that would make lynching a federal hate crime.
But, when Booker comes to South Carolina on Feb. 11 for his first visit since declaring his candidacy, he probably won’t try to win over Democrats by boasting about his friendship with Scott. It is more likely, said S.C. Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright, that Booker will frame the relationship as a sign he will be prepared, as president, to put aside political differences.
“I don’t think you’re going to see (Booker) at a town hall meeting in a Democratic primary saying, ‘Look at me, look at Tim Scott,’ “ Seawright said. “But I do think you will see him talk about his policy agenda … and his ability to work across the aisle to get things done.”
Scott knows how he would present their friendship.
“The vast majority of Americans want a functioning government, which means, in a divided government, you ought to get kudos for working together,” Scott said. “(Booker) ought to tailor his success with a Republican majority in a way that benefits his candidacy.
“That’s what I would recommend if I ran his campaign team. But I’m not, by the way. I’m supporting Donald Trump.”
The danger in naming Scott as a friend and sometimes ally could be that Booker gets attacked for being too conciliatory towards Republicans. As Democrats fight for the future of their party, many argue they must move farther to the left, leaving little room for cooperation in the middle.
Some prominent Democrats are being viewed with suspicion — even scorn — for highlighting their relationships with Republicans. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is mulling his own 2020 bid, was rebuked in the lead-up to the midterms for delivering a speech that praised U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.
Biden was recognizing Upton’s support of cancer research, not making an endorsement. But his statement of appreciation widely was seen as a step too far, given Upton was then in the throes of a tough reelection battle.
Charleston County Democratic Party chairman Brady Quirk-Garvan doesn’t anticipate Booker will have that problem.
“There are those that will try and attack (Booker). ... But this could backfire because the things he’s worked on with Scott are things that play well with Democratic base voters,” said Quirk-Garvan, naming the anti-lynching bill as one example.
Scott’s popularity in South Carolina also means there could be some scenarios where Booker actually might find it’s to his advantage to name drop the local senator.
In recent weeks, Scott has spoken about the need for Republicans to get smarter about issues of race. Last fall, he helped sink a judicial nominee who, critics said, played a role in a black voter suppression strategy in 1990 — a decision Scott reached, at least in part, after consulting with Booker.
Many Republicans have responded well to Scott’s actions. So have many Democrats.
“People know … Tim Scott has always been someone you can count on to speak out against racism in his own party. People hold him in much greater esteem than they do some other Republicans,” said Democrat Bakari Sellers, a former state legislator who is now a CNN contributor.
Scott isn’t up for re-election until 2022, meaning anything nice Booker says about him won’t be viewed as a threat.
What might be more problematic for Booker is if he ends up complimenting South Carolina’s senior U.S. senator, Republican Lindsey Graham, who will be on the ballot next year. Democrats have their sights set on unseating Graham by tying him to President Donald Trump, said Clay Middleton, Booker’s S.C. senior political adviser.
“Lindsey Graham is giving us more ammunition and energy on the Democratic side right now than Tim Scott.”