Nikki Haley’s Boomlet in Republican Primary Against Trump

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The rise of Nikki Haley has energized the kind of Republicans who at one time thrilled to the sight of Jeb Bush and had begun to despair that they would ever see his like again. “In recent weeks,” the New York Times reported, “a number of chief executives, hedge fund investors and corporate deal makers from both parties have begun gravitating toward” Haley, the former governor of South Carolina. The powerful Koch network has thrown its weight behind her candidacy. JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon has made supportive noises, and billionaire Kenneth Griffin is “actively contemplating” a donation. (Wealthy people do nothing passively, not even contemplation.) Health-data executive Jonathan Bush — yes, of that Bush family — gushed, “It’s invigorating to be truly excited by a candidate again,” evoking the sensation of the wind rushing through his hair as he grips the helm of his yacht for the first voyage of summer.

Haley’s rise is the most interesting story in the Republican primary, the only previous drama being the slow, painful death of the Ron DeSantis campaign. Haley has surged past DeSantis into second place in some polls by consolidating what remains of the party’s Establishment wing: traditional conservatives, social moderates, the large-donor class, and other Republican voters who find Donald Trump’s antics mortifying.

The trouble for Haley is that the faction she is rallying is inherently bounded. The Establishment wing is limited not only in size but also by the intense hostility it inspires among the party’s Trumpier voters. She is following a formula that can propel her into consideration for the vice-presidency, or position her to step in if Trump is felled by heart disease, but gives her little chance to actually defeat the party’s reigning cult leader and self-styled president-in-exile. Whatever you might say about the hapless DeSantis candidacy, it is at least built upon a recognition of the actual state of the Trump-era GOP. Haley’s candidacy is less a way of dealing with the party’s problems than an attempt to pretend they don’t exist.

In April, Sarah Longwell of The Bulwark wrote what is still one of the most insightful reports about the Republican electorate. Longwell, strategic director of Republican Voters Against Trump, has sat through hundreds of focus groups to understand the mental state of the party. Her primary conclusion is that most GOP voters see the Trump era not as an interregnum but as a kind of revolutionary event she calls “Year Zero.”

“The Republican party has been irretrievably altered,” she wrote, “and, as one GOP voter put it succinctly, ‘We’re never going back.’” Such voters have bought into Trump’s argument that the party leaders who preceded him were weak losers. (This argument conveniently absolves Trump of blame for his own losses — he was sabotaged by the Establishment, you see.) “If you forged your political identity pre-Trump, then you belong to a GOP establishment now loathed by a majority of Republican primary voters,” she concluded. “Even if you agree with Trump. Even if you worked for Trump. Even if you were on Trump’s ticket as his vice president.

Longwell laid out a roster of Republican politicians whom the voters could never accept for this reason. The first name on her list was Nikki Haley.

Haley’s relationship with Trump has been characterized by endless repositioning. Like most of the party’s pre-Trump governing class, she met his rise with horror and disbelief. “I will not stop until we fight a man that chooses not to disavow the KKK. That is not a part of our party. That is not who we want as president,” she said in early 2016. And also like most elite Republicans, Trump’s surprise victory was enough to legitimize him in her eyes, and she found her way into his administration as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

After Trump’s failed attempt to overturn the 2020 election result culminated in a forcible invasion of the Capitol, Haley depicted Trump as a victim (“They are beating him up after he leaves office”). But a couple of weeks later in an interview with Politico’s Tim Alberta, Haley said Trump “let us down.” She added, “And we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.” In that same interview, Haley defended his claim to have won the 2020 election as his genuine belief,
blaming confidants for giving him bad advice. Asked by Alberta if she had given Trump better information, Haley admitted she hadn’t. A couple of months after that, she promised not to run against Trump. She reversed that position, too.

Yet for all her efforts to smooth over her disagreements with her former boss, Haley has not done what Longwell believes the base wants: Erase her pre-Trump history and remake herself in his image. Her platform has a Romney-esque tinge with staunch defenses of Ukraine and plans to raise the Social Security eligibility age. More important, Haley — unlike Trump but like every other presidential aspirant in history — talks about bringing the country together rather than humiliating and subjugating half of it.

Haley is following a very different strategy from DeSantis. The Florida governor has calculated that Trump skeptics are a minority of the party and that his path to victory requires him to envelop Trump from both sides, grabbing both the critics and the loyalists. Traditional ideology has limited value here because the questions at stake revolve around personality and power — specifically Trump’s. DeSantis accepts the premise that Trump’s presidency was sabotaged by a “deep state” cabal and that the principle objective of the presidency is to wage a political culture war by any means necessary. He is running as a more effective instrument of revenge against Trump’s enemies than Trump himself.

This is obviously a tricky message, and DeSantis has turned the difficult into the impossible by combining a lack of humor and warmth with chronic mismanagement. DeSantis outsourced his campaign strategy to an external organization, Never Back Down, which has been beset by infighting. At a recent meeting, two leaders of the super-PAC nearly came to blows, perhaps revealing the downside of an organizational culture premised on never backing down.

But just because he has failed to execute his strategy doesn’t mean it’s the wrong one. There simply aren’t enough votes in the Trump-skeptical wing to overtake Trump. If DeSantis can’t beat Trump, which apparently is the case, nobody can. Haley is having an easier time consolidating her base because her potential constituency is more internally coherent — because it is smaller.

Haley is currently on a rocket ride to second place, where her support will crash against a ceiling that sits well below 50 percent. If you’re trying to imagine what a two-person race between her and Trump would look like, Haley is what Trump would call a foil straight out of “central casting.” All her traits — female, nonwhite, Establishment darling, former Trump subordinate — make her an ideal target for his bullying.

The outcome of such a contest seems so obvious that one wonders if even Haley thinks she can win. Does she have a plan to actually defeat her former boss? Or is she hoping he either offers her the vice-presidency or drops dead? (Ideally, the former followed by the latter.) Of all the limp gestures the Republican Establishment has made to rid itself of Trump over the past eight years, the Haley candidacy may be the most preordained to fail.

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