As Haley climbs in the polls, she confronts attacks criticized as sexist

Nikki Haley gets makeup reapplied during a break in the Republican presidential debate. MUST CREDIT: Joshua Lott/The Washington Post

Linda Portel has watched a barrage of presidential campaign commercials this year from her living room in Urbandale, Iowa. Many have faded from her memory. But one stuck with her: an ad attacking Nikki Haley that Portel viewed as sexist.

The 30-second spot tying Haley to Hillary Clinton is just the kind of broadside that Portel, who is undecided, and other Haley admirers worry could derail the former U.N. ambassador’s long-shot bid to defeat Donald Trump for the Republican nomination. A former Trump supporter, Portel is concerned that the misleading portrayal of Haley as an acolyte of a former female candidate reviled by conservatives could hurt her in the crucial weeks ahead.

“Unfortunately, people don’t read between the lines,” said Portel, 76, in an interview.

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley after a Republican primary debate on Dec. 6 in Tuscaloosa, Ala. MUST CREDIT: Joshua Lott/The Washington Post

As Haley has risen in the polls in recent months amid a shrinking GOP field, she has faced escalating attacks from rivals and their allies that critics regard as sexist and meant to single out her gender in a Republican Party that has been slower than Democrats to elevate women into some of the most prominent elected offices. The party remains dominated by Trump, who routinely attacks women with sexist and demeaning language and was this year found liable for sexual abuse.

Interviews with more than 40 Republican voters, activists and officials in key early states show a party that has never nominated a woman for president navigating conflicting opinions, including some signs of voter unease at the prospect, even as Haley has grown her support and seeks to cement her position as Trump’s top GOP challenger. Some Haley backers say they are increasingly concerned about this trend – and what they see as efforts from rival candidates and their allies to exploit it.

Haley supporter Bart Weller, who attended her town hall in Ankeny, Iowa, summed up some of the challenges that Haley faces when he recalled one of his brothers bluntly telling him, “I don’t want to vote for a woman to be president.”

Male rivals have gone after Haley in ways that some GOP critics say is either flatly sexist or carries sexist undertones. Trump has labeled Haley “birdbrain.” He told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt earlier this year that she was “overly ambitious” and “just couldn’t stay in her seat.” (Haley has said being called ambitious used to bother her, but now she considers it being a “badass”).

Nikki Haley has described her heels as ammunition. MUST CREDIT: Hannah Beier for The Washington Post

Biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy has suggested Haley should switch over to “the party of identity politics” and claimed her “gender-card shtick is pathetic & straight out of the Kamala Harris / Hillary Clinton playbook.”

In addition to the ad Portel watched from the pro-Ron DeSantis group Fight Right – which highlights Haley saying Clinton in part inspired her to run for office, selectively omitting her criticism of Clinton – another group supporting the Florida governor has released misleading videos splicing together similar words uttered by Haley, Clinton and Michelle Obama. Portel referenced the ad she saw in a conversation with door-knockers from a pro-Haley group, Americans for Prosperity.

Haley and her allies have dismissed attacks from her male rivals, and she has delivered one-liners at debates that nod to her position as the only woman onstage. “I love all the attention, fellas,” she said during the fourth debate in Alabama, while under both policy and personal criticism from the other candidates.

Others have issued more direct criticism. Barbara Comstock, a former Republican congresswoman who is on the board of both VIEW PAC and Winning for Women – two groups devoted to electing more conservative women to higher office – roundly denounced the criticisms from Trump and others.

“Imagine him criticizing Vivek Ramaswamy for being overly ambitious, right? That’s something that is only applied to women,” said Comstock, who is supporting former New Jersey governor Chris Christie in the 2024 race. She noted that Trump’s “birdbrain” nickname has been largely ignored by Haley: “That’s because she’s in a party where there’s a lot of misogyny, so it makes that much more difficult for her to take that on herself.”

“In the old Republican Party, there would have been a lot of men who would have stood up and said, ‘How dare you, this is outrageous,'” Comstock added. “But Trump’s unleashed everyone’s inner misogyny – so for a lot of these guys, they can openly be that way because Trump is.”

Spokespeople for the rival campaigns and their allied groups defended the ads and attacks, arguing they are pointing out how Haley’s policies and some of the positions she has taken are out of step with the base of the Republican Party and that her gender should not preclude such arguments.

Tricia McLaughlin, an adviser to Ramaswamy, said she found the “cries of sexism incredibly infantilizing,” and “having two X chromosomes doesn’t shield you from scrutiny.”

At the same time, many of Trump’s supporters largely shrug off his controversial comments about women and his efforts to demean his past female rivals.

“The women taking offense, they need a stronger backbone,” said Sandra, a recent retiree from Mason City, Iowa, who spoke on the condition that her full name not be used to protect her privacy. Though she disliked some of Trump’s tweets, she said in an interview at a local Walmart that the former president “makes me laugh.”

– – –

Hurdles for Republican women

Women of both parties face gender discrimination running for office, but experts say historical patterns show the hurdles for female Republicans can be even more pervasive because the party base tends to skew more male, and GOP voters are much less likely to say women’s political underrepresentation is a problem. A Pew Research Center study in September found major differences between the two parties when adults were asked whether it was important to see a female president in their lifetime: 14 percent of Republicans or those who lean Republican said it was; while 57 percent of Democrats or those who lean Democrat said the same.

Nikki Haley answers questions from Iowans before the January caucuses during a town hall in Waukee, Iowa, on Dec. 10. MUST CREDIT: Melina Mara/The Washington Post

Many Republican female voters said they like Haley’s political pitch, including her calls for consensus and unity. But Trump is leading the GOP primary field by a huge margin, including among female voters; in a recent Fox News poll, 61 percent of Republican female primary voters backed Trump while only 9 percent backed Haley.

Experts who track gender in politics say that Haley has been nimble in balancing the competing pressures that female candidates often face. They note that she has maintained her likability in focus groups while also showing voters in debates that she can be tough with slashing attacks on some of her rivals.

But Haley has also faced scrutiny from some activists who argue she selectively highlights her gender or race only when politically advantageous. Many Democratic critics view her frequent assertions that Kamala Harris – the nation’s first female, Black and South Asian vice president – is not qualified to be president as sexist.

In head-to-head matchups with President Biden, Haley has often performed more strongly than Trump in part by appealing to a broader group of voters, including moderates, suburbanites, independents, as well as some of the former GOP women who say they left the party over Trump. Biden won a majority of women against Trump in 2020.

The GOP recognizes that “we have a problem with female voters, and specifically younger female voters,” said Ariel Hill-Davis, the founder and policy director of Republican Women for Progress.

“You have this really tough situation for women and candidates like Nikki Haley – where in order to make it through a primary you can’t lean into your identity,” Hill-Davis added, even though “those are actually the exact sorts of things in a general [election] that would be helpful to your campaign.”

Some Democrats say they are relieved that due in part to sexist attitudes in some segments of the GOP, they believe Haley – who has shown potential to appeal across party lines in a general election – is unlikely to be the Republican nominee.

“They won’t nominate her, thank God,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. “What a poison sexism is.”

– – –

‘A no-win path for a female politician’

Female politicians from both parties have long struggled to strike the balance between toughness and femininity that voters will accept, some who have run for office said.

Nikki Haley meets Iowans during a town hall gathering in Sioux City, Iowa, on Dec. 8. MUST CREDIT: Melina Mara/The Washington Post

“Talking about gender is a no-win path for a female politician. If you say there are real problems that women face, then you’re a whiner. You say everything is wonderful and there are no problems at all, half the population wonders what planet you’re on,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who mounted her own presidential bid in 2020, told The Washington Post.

While Clinton galvanized female voters in 2016 with the goal of breaking the “highest, hardest glass ceiling,” Haley has been more subtle with her nods at her gender, emphatically stating she rejects identity-based politics.

She has sported T-shirts in Iowa with pointed messages like “Underestimate me, that’ll be fun”; described her heels as ammunition; blasted Sheryl Crow’s “Woman in the White House,” at campaign events; and on the debate stage adopted a mantra of her personal hero Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister: “If you want something done, ask a woman.”

On the trail, Haley has highlighted her role as a mom while discussing both abortion and the participation of transgender athletes in women’s sports – two areas where supporters regularly give her high marks. Haley has urged a national consensus on abortion and said the federal government should be involved, but she has largely avoided specifics, arguing that a federal ban is unlikely to pass Congress. She instead has personalized the issue, talking about her own struggles to have children, her husband who was adopted and a friend who was raped.

She has maintained throughout her career that she doesn’t want to be defined as just a woman or just a woman of color – even as she has broken barriers as the country’s first female Asian American governor, the first Indian American to serve in the Cabinet, and one of the first two women of color to be elected governor of a state.

“I had never asked to be elected because I was a woman or because I was Indian. For one thing, for those who cared about such things, my race and my sex were at least as much a negative as they were a positive. And for another when you do that, you’re playing the game,” Haley wrote in her memoir “Can’t Is Not an Option.”

South Carolina state Rep. Nathan Ballentine (R), one of Haley’s closest allies during her time as a state legislator from 2004 to 2010, said he pushed Haley to play the “chick card” earlier in her career when she ran for governor and that she refused, saying the election was about policy.

In her book, “Can’t Is Not an Option,” Haley recalls being the first and only female executive at a recycling company, where another executive asked her to grab the CEO coffee at one of her first meetings. She called her assistant to get the coffee instead and said after that moment her colleagues treated her as an equal.

When she ran for office she was discounted as inexperienced and was thought to have no chance in part because a woman hadn’t served as governor before. Once elected, she writes about being careful not to lose control of her emotions as a woman.

– – –

Haley’s balancing act

Amanda Hunter, the executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, a nonpartisan organization focused on researching women running for executive office, described Haley as “one of the most adept women leaders that we’ve seen in recent history at navigating the tightrope that women have to walk.”

Hunter said that Haley’s campaign has effectively woven her gender and race into her message without making it the core of her appeal, and they have also given voters permission to say those attributes don’t matter.

But political strategists stressed that Haley has many obstacles ahead – predicting that the gendered and sexist attacks on her will intensify further as she attempts to become the first woman to make it to the White House.

Frank Sadler, who managed Republican Carly Fiorina’s presidential campaign in 2016, said that female candidates must overcome subconscious expectations from voters that candidates should look the part of what they imagine a president to look like. That’s a challenge, he said, when there have only been male presidents.

Some voters such as Cheryl Wensel, who attended a Trump Commit to Caucus event in Coralville, Iowa, earlier this month, noted a similar point and said she doesn’t think Republicans would elect a female president: “It would be different, it would be strange.”

But Haley has also appealed to many Republican women, drawing growing crowds in key early states. In interviews with more than 30 in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, many noted that they identify with Haley’s experiences, even as they underscore that they don’t believe in identity politics.

“I like that she’s female – but that isn’t the only reason. I think that she’s just a very strong, politically savvy candidate. And I like that she speaks her mind as well,” said Iowa voter June Locke, who attended a Haley town hall in Cedar Rapids. “It’s about time. We know that we’re the stronger sex.”

Her pitch has also appealed to independent women like Charlie Pogue, who said at a Haley town hall in Hooksett, N.H., that she’d “vote for Satan over Trump.” While she supported Democratic business executive Andrew Yang in 2020, she now likes “pretty much everything” that Haley says.

Many of the women said they believe Haley is a unifier and could bring the country together more effectively than a male president. They praised what they see as her emphasis on consensus rather than name-calling, and how she talks about being a mom. For some who are volunteering for her campaign, the idea of electing the first female president is a strong motivator.

At a Haley event in Boiling Springs, S.C., Spartanburg resident Jen Pappas said: “The gender does not impress me, but because I am a female, I agree with a lot of things . . . I think she’s more understanding. Men seem to be more [for] themselves, while she seems more to be for others.”

Former New Hampshire speaker pro tempore Kimberly Rice, a co-chair of Haley’s campaign in the state, said she never considered supporting Haley because of her gender but that she thinks she is the ideal role model for her four daughters and granddaughter “because she is not only strong and fierce, she is also compassionate and caring, in a way that I think that a female leader should be.”

Yet admirers like Chris Hurayt, a 64-year-old retiree in Boiling Springs, sympathize with Haley’s challenges ahead. “She’s the only woman out there against all these other guys, and it’s always been a man’s world.”



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here