Nikki Haley wants to convince Republicans she’s the younger leader they need

Nikki Haley speaks at a Republican Jewish Coalition meeting in November. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Bridget Bennett

Nikki Haley aims to capitalize on the growing Republican disdain for her former boss Donald Trump and the increasing desire for a younger standard-bearer as she challenges the ex-president for the party’s 2024 White House nomination.

The former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the U.N. is expected to announce her candidacy on Feb. 15, making her the first 2024 Republican to take on a politically weakened Trump, who launched his bid to return to the White House Nov. 15.

Haley, 51, has said the U.S. is ripe for new leadership with President Joe Biden, who is 80 years old, expected to seek a second term and the 76-year-old Trump on a comeback bid.

“We need to go in a new direction. And can I be that leader? Yes, I think I can be that leader,” Haley told Fox News in January.

But Haley faces an uphill climb and the prospect of withering attacks from Trump, who has reserved particular scorn for challengers who served in his administration such as Haley or were once close allies.

Early polls show her well behind the former president and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who’s widely expected to enter the race and at 44 is also positioning himself as a younger alternative to Trump. Haley polled at 4% in a survey released on Tuesday by Republican pollster Whit Ayres – equal with former U.S. Representative Liz Cheney and behind DeSantis, Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence.

The daughter of Indian immigrants, Haley was the youngest and first minority female U.S. governor when she was elected in 2010. That experience will allow her to withstand attacks from Trump and compete for GOP voters looking for an alternative to the former president, said Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina Republican chairman who’s backing Haley.

Dawson said Haley will lean on her record as governor where she aggressively promoted economic development that brought the unemployment rate to a 15-year low during her tenure as well as her foreign policy experience after Trump tapped her in 2016 to serve as ambassador.

“There’s a lane for somebody like Nikki Haley who can take the pounding, who has the experience to not panic, who has a lot of confidence in her ability,” Dawson said.

It’s unclear how Haley will hold up against Trump, who is a master at belittling rivals to gain advantages, said Republican strategist Doug Heye.

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.

One reason for that support was her stalwart backing of Israel at the U.N. and her willingness to be assertive, even once showing up uninvited at a meeting of foreign ministers at the U.N. to discuss the Iran nuclear accord and taking a spot reserved for a senior adviser to former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Trump so far has held back against Haley even as he lashes out at other one-time allies, such as DeSantis. Trump has mocked the governor as “Ron Desanctimonius” and said it would be “very disloyal” for DeSantis to run against him.

Trump said he told Haley to “go by your heart if you want to run” when she called him to say she was considering a bid, according to CNN. He added that she had publicly called him “a great president.”

Haley said in 2021 that she would not run if Trump did, but she laid the groundwork for a presidential bid, including by actively campaigning for GOP candidates across the U.S. last year. After disappointing midterm results for Republicans, which included the defeat of many of Trump’s handpicked candidates, Haley said circumstances had changed.

“It is time that we get a Republican in there that can lead and that can win a general election,” she told Fox News host Sean Hannity in January, noting the GOP had lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections.

U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who’s endorsed Trump, said Haley will have to make a case for herself but has a good story to tell.

“I think she’ll be a very viable candidate,” Graham told Bloomberg News in an interview. “She has the ability to help the Republican Party grow. So I expect her to be very competitive.”

Republican strategist Sarah Longwell, publisher of the conservative website The Bulwark, said Haley performs best among swing voters alienated from the GOP. Longwell, who has worked to defeat Trump and conducts GOP focus groups, said Haley’s name typically comes up when voters are asked who they’d like to see run besides Trump and DeSantis.

“A lot of those folks look at Nikki Haley as somebody they could vote for,” Longwell said. “They know who she is and they’ll say, ‘Nikki Haley, I like her.’ ”

Haley has attracted some deep-pocketed donors. Her nonprofit, Stand for America, received six-figure donations in 2019 from Home Depot co-founders Kenneth Langone and Bernard Marcus, hedge fund managers Paul Singer and Cliff Asness and GOP megadonor Miriam Adelson, according to a copy of the group’s 2019 tax return first reported by Politico.

Her leadership PAC raised $17.5 million in the 2022 election cycle, far short of the $180 million that Trump raised over the same period. Haley’s PAC got $5,000 donations from Asness, Adelson, Langone and Singer. Marcus gave $10,000. She raised $8.2 million from small-dollar donors who give less than $200.

Dawson said Haley can stand up to Trump and DeSantis, especially on a debate stage, and no one should underestimate her.

“I’ve won tough primaries and tough general elections,” Haley told a Republican Jewish Coalition meeting in November. “I’ve been the underdog every single time. When people underestimate me, it’s always fun. But I’ve never lost an election, and I’m not gonna start now.”



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