He’d proved he could be trusted with the nation’s finances by not overspending or borrowing when times were good.
But he had also shown he was a man for a crisis by presiding over Germany’s massive coronavirus bail-out, spending he described as “the bazooka that’s needed to get the job done”.
While Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democrat party (CDU) fought over her legacy, he understood that her popular appeal was based less on a particular set of policies than on her reputation for competence.
He was helped by the haplessness of his rivals.
The CDU’s Armin Laschet was filmed laughing at a solemn event to honour the victims of catastrophic floods.
The Greens’ Annalena Baerbock was caught plagiarising large sections of a book.
While their campaigns imploded Mr Scholz went quietly about his business, and looked like the only adult in the room. As one Berlin political insider put it: “Who can take Merkel’s place and sit down opposite Putin? Scholz is the only one up to the job.”
Since the election Mr Scholz has stuck to following the Merkel approach.
While the other coalition parties have briefed journalists on issues from the Nord Stream pipeline to coronavirus policy, he has said nothing.
Right now, his position on many key issues is far from clear — a strategy Mrs Merkel often employed to give herself room for manoeuvre.
Lines of defence
Since his election victory, the hard-Left’s grip on the SPD has loosened.
One of its leadership duo has stepped down of his own accord, and Mr Scholz has replaced him with a more amenable figure from the centrist wing.
By handing the finance ministry to the business-friendly FDP, he has given himself a line of defence against any challenge from the Left.
He can blame any issues with tax and government spending on the FDP, and say that’s just coalition politics — another strategy straight out of the Merkel playbook.
Despite his successful self-reivention, Mr Scholz is not without his own skeletons in the cupboard — but so far none of them have damaged him.
Questions have been asked about how much he knew in advance as finance minister about massive fraud at Wirecard, the German online payment giant.
During his time as mayor of his native Hamburg, he was accused of intervening to stop a tax fraud investigation into a private bank.
Prosecutors earlier this year raided the finance ministry to investigate allegations officials had failed to report suspicious payments to Africa. Mr Scholz was finance minister at the time but said the matter was far below his paygrade and he knew nothing about it.