(Feb 15): Nikki Haley thawed a Republican presidential field that had been frozen for months by her former boss Donald Trump’s comeback bid.
Yet with her entry Tuesday into the 2024 race, she now faces an uphill battle in casting herself as the younger voice the party needs to retake the White House.
Current polls show the former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador under Trump barely registering in a potentially crowded field dominated by the former president and Florida governor Ron DeSantis. DeSantis has already carved out a lane as a younger alternative to the quarrelsome Trump, who could woo disaffected suburban voters.
Haley had earlier said that she wouldn’t challenge Trump, 76, for the nomination if he were to announce. Two weeks ago, as the news of her impending announcement leaked, the ex-president said that Haley, 51, had first called to let him know that she was weighing a bid and that he advised her to follow her heart.
Trump has largely avoided hurling insults at her that he saves for other competitors like DeSantis, or in earlier campaigns, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. He’s used more subtle swipes like telling conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that “she’s overly ambitious”, a term that’s often levied as an an insult to women.
“Even though Nikki Haley said, ‘I would never run against my president, he was a great president, the best president in my lifetime,’ I told her she should follow her heart and do what she wants to do,” Trump said in a statement provided by his campaign. “I wish her luck!”
Still, Haley is so far the only Republican to go beyond just signalling intent to take on Trump. It’s a nearly unprecedented task in American politics: An irascible former president who retains a sizeable percentage of support from his party’s base, waging a comeback.
Asked about his White House aspirations at a Tuesday press conference in Jacksonville, DeSantis only replied to a reporter saying, “wouldn’t you like to know?”
Trump’s Make America Great Again super political action committee released a statement on Tuesday, saying that Haley is “just another career politician”.
In the video announcing her candidacy on Tuesday, Haley said, “It’s time for a new generation of leadership — to rediscover fiscal responsibility, secure our border, and strengthen our country, our pride and our purpose.
“You should know this about me: I don’t put up with bullies, and when you kick back, it hurts them more if you’re wearing heels.”
Haley was one of the few top Trump aides to maintain a good relationship with him over time — so much so that he hosted her in the Oval Office for a public farewell when she resigned as ambassador in 2018.
She’s shown signs of attracting deep-pocketed donors.
Her leadership PAC, Stand for America, raised US$17.5 million over the last two years. That total was more than she raised in her two gubernatorial campaigns, when she took in US$8.4 million in 2014 and US$3.8 million in 2010, state records show. Stand for America ended 2022 with US$2 million in the bank after spending US$15.5 million, including donations to federal and state campaigns of almost US$617,000.
It received six-figure donations in 2019 from Home Depot Inc co-founders Kenneth Langone and Bernard Marcus, hedge fund managers Paul Singer and Cliff Asness and Republican mega donor Miriam Adelson, according to a copy of the group’s 2019 tax return first reported by Politico.
Betsy Ankney, who leads the Stand for America PAC, will be Haley’s campaign manager, Mary Kate Johnson will be finance director, strategist Jon Lerner will be senior adviser, and Barney Keller of Jamestown Associates will be media consultant.
Haley’s announcement appeared to galvanise the rest of the GOP field. Senator Tim Scott, also from South Carolina, has events planned in Charleston on Thursday after Haley’s announcement speech on Wednesday and in Iowa next week.
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, speculated as a potential running mate for Trump, is giving three speeches in Washington this week, including Wednesday at the America First Policy Institute, which is stocked with former Trump administration officials.
Former vice president Mike Pence, and Trump’s ex-secretary of state Mike Pompeo are also expected to challenge their former boss.
Other potential candidates considering the race include former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who helped Trump prepare for 2020 presidential debates, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, former Maryland governor Larry Hogan, and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
“Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven out of the last eight presidential elections. That has to change,” Haley said in the Tuesday video.
A Jan 24 Emerson College poll showed Trump with 55% of the vote in a potentially crowded primary field, with DeSantis at 29%, Pence at 6% and Haley at just 3%.
Similarly, a Monmouth University Poll released last week showed Trump and DeSantis as the clear preferences among GOP voters right now, with Haley and other potential candidates mentioned by only a handful of survey participants.
As a woman, the daughter of working-class Indian immigrants, and a former governor and ambassador, Haley can appeal to GOP voters looking to move on from Trump, said Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina Republican chairman who’s backing Haley.
If she wins the nomination she would likely face President Joe Biden, and Vice President Kamala Harris, who is also of Indian descent. Harris faced Biden in the Democratic primary before he picked her as a running mate.
Haley appeals especially to swing voters and frustrated Republicans, but she could have a problem with voters who like Trump and his policies but want a younger version like DeSantis, said Republican strategist Sarah Longwell, publisher of the anti-Trump website The Bulwark who conducts focus groups with GOP voters.
“The party’s changed,” Longwell said. “Nikki Haley would’ve been a really, really strong candidate in 2012.”