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The Memo: Haley tries to sell GOP on a different future
Former U.N. Ambassador and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley speaks during an event sponsored by Turning Point USA at Clemson University on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022, in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)
Nikki Haley is in — but can she really win?
Haley, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and as the first female governor of South Carolina, made her entry into the 2024 presidential race official with a Tuesday morning video. On Wednesday, she will hold an in-person launch in Charleston, S.C.
It is clear what Haley is selling. The question is whether the GOP primary electorate right now is in the mood to buy.
Haley’s appeal is that she can expand the tent of the Republican Party while still remaining faithful to conservative principles. She models herself as a conservative who embraces modernity rather than recoiling from it.
The opening seconds of her video emphasized her heritage as the daughter of immigrants from India — and her experience as a young girl in South Carolina who was “not Black. Not white. I was different.”
This, together with her gender and her comparative youth at 51, strike a sharp contrast with the prevailing image of her party — and with her old boss.
Former President Trump, at 76, is the only other declared candidate in the race so far. He shows no sign at all of backing away from incendiary rhetoric on topics such as crime and immigration.
Haley’s implicit argument is that the GOP will condemn itself to future political defeats unless it can shake itself free of Trump and Trumpism.
Her launch video did not make any frontal attack on Trump, but she emphasized that Republicans had lost the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections.
Are GOP primary voters in the mood to embrace that message? In early opinion polls of the race, Haley lags way beyond Trump and another right-wing populist, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Moderate Republicans and those who have quit the party over Trump tend to believe that Haley is caught between two stools.
They say she is too close to Trump, having served in his administration — yet also too far down the list of candidates who can give a GOP base the rhetorical red-meat that it craves.
“Nikki Haley is a Republican for another time,” said Lucy Caldwell, a political strategist who now terms herself a former Republican.
Caldwell noted that a Haley-like candidate would have had a better chance about a dozen years ago, when the GOP nominated Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah) as its presidential standard-bearer.
Caldwell added that, in many polls, most Republican voters believe false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.
“This is not a base that is looking for ‘generational change,’” she said wryly.
John “Mac” Stipanovich, a veteran GOP operative in Florida and a fierce Trump critic, told The Hill, “I think of myself as a center-right conservative and I couldn’t tell you where Nikki Haley falls on that spectrum.”
Stipanovich added, “I just don’t see the need for Nikki Haley. If you want Trump, you’ve got Trump. If you want Trump without the tremendous amount of baggage, you’ve got DeSantis. And if you want what I would call a mainline, traditional Republican, there are better candidates for that than Nikki Haley — who in my judgement, at least, is contaminated by her service to Trump.”
But there is a more optimistic case to be made for Haley as well.
For a start, she has repeatedly been underestimated. As she likes to note, she has never lost an election. The standout example was her come-from-behind victory to win the GOP nomination for South Carolina governor back in 2010.
While governor, she rose to meet one particularly sensitive moment. She backed the removal of a Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds after a racist attacker killed nine Black congregants at a historic African American church in Charleston in June 2015. It was no small thing for a Republican governor of a southern state.
Haley also can point to her time as United Nations ambassador as giving her a grounding in foreign affairs. She portrays herself as having stood up to foes like China and Iran in that role — even as some other Trump administration veterans look askance at her decision to resign after less than two years.
“Too many … came in, punched their ticket and went on, and for those who made that decision, I just don’t have any time,” former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told The Hill in an interview Monday, when asked about Haley. “I don’t understand how someone who believes that they have this incredible opportunity, in an important role, says ‘No thanks, I don’t want to do that anymore.’”
Some independent experts feel Haley could be being underestimated once again.
Part of the pro-Haley case is that, as neither a MAGA Republican nor a Never Trump dissenter, she could perhaps bridge the party’s fissures, much as Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) did in his successful 2021 campaign in the commonwealth.
There’s another argument, too: that Haley would be better placed than most alternatives to win a general election.
“It is going to be a lot harder for any Democrat to paint her as a fringe, dangerous candidate,” said Grant Reeher, a political science professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School.
“If Republicans get in the mindset of, ‘The first attribute we need is the ability to beat Joe Biden,’ then she becomes a very attractive candidate.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.