As the Republican primary moves from debates to elections, can Nikki Haley’s surge become a super surge? It’s certainly possible, but displacing DeSantis as the clear second choice means nothing unless it propels Haley into first place. Engineering a coveted head-to-head matchup with Trump doesn’t help if Haley still loses 70-30, 60-40, or even 51-49.
Overtaking Trump, who continues to poll below 50 percent in Iowa and New Hampshire, but is in a commanding lead nationally, will require Haley not only to do more of what she’s clearly doing well. Momentum begets momentum, but she’ll also need to take daring risks. Moving chunks of primary voters en masse away from Trump demands a psychological jolt that previous challengers haven’t been able to strike.
Team Trump has basically told Haley how to craft her closing argument. Trump adviser Jason Miller recently telegraphed Trump’s theory of the race and his weaknesses and strengths, saying that “President Trump is in the dominant position in the Republican primary, and it is very clear that Republican voters believe he has the best chance of beating Joe Biden in the general election. … When you have a front-runner who is ahead by so much and who is right on all of the issues, why would you go for a knock-off version or a cheap imitation?”
Miller spells it out: To win, Trump needs an air of invincibility and inevitability, and he is threatened by anything that might puncture that aura. He’s not afraid of cheap imitations (a knock on DeSantis) but may be afraid of someone different. And he’s overconfident on policy. Haley’s plan, then, should be to deny Trump the fealty he demands while drawing sharp contrasts with him on substance and style.
Policy has been a secret to Haley’s surge that can also power her super surge. Haley seems to be the only candidate who remembers that conservatives don’t have to go back to the Reagan years to find a model for success. During the Obama “Tea Party” era (2009-2017) Republican ranks grew by 69 seats (from 178 to 247) while they won 12 seats in the Senate (from 42 to 54). Since 2017, Republicans have lost 19 House seats and three Senate seats. Yes, Republicans gained a barely functioning majority when they won nine seats in Biden’s first midterm in 2022, but they won seven times that amount (63 seats) during Obama’s first midterm in 2010. The obvious lesson: The GOP won when it was focused on issues and has lost while it’s been it focused on a person.
Congressional Republicans won then because they focused on many of the issues Haley is campaigning on today (economic freedom, less spending, ending earmarks, saving our safety net programs, energy abundance, and a Reaganesque foreign policy). It’s unfashionable to defend Paul Ryan in 2023, but people who like winning will recall that the GOP won big in 2010 after Ryan released his first “Roadmap” that unflinchingly tackled our spending crisis and the impending collapse of our safety net.
On policy, Haley has an opportunity to win big chunks of Trump voters by making the case that she’ll be more loyal to the Trump agenda than Trump has been. The “Trump agenda” is, of course, a Rorschach test. As much as the New Right sees the Trump agenda as an ideological conversion story, a celebration of industrial policy, and a full-throated endorsement of 1930s’ America First foreign policy, voters see a different picture: a good economy, affordable groceries, and lower gas prices.
The Trump agenda succeeded when Trump bent the knee to Reaganism and—more specifically—Mitch McConnell and Ryan, who helped approve judges and shepherd the passage of the Tax Cuts and Job Act. Still, Trump deserves credit for being loyal to Haley’s economic vision and often listening to her on foreign policy. One could argue, when Haley is right on all of the issues, why would you go for a knock-off version or a cheap imitation like Trump?
Haley can further press her case that Trump turned his back on his own base. While “stopping the steal,” he threw control of the Senate to Democrats and let Biden run up our debt. Even worse, Trump partnered with the establishment to peddle the fiction that Social Security and Medicare aren’t going bankrupt. Trump’s position on reforming entitlement programs, the single largest driver of our debt, is indistinguishable from Biden’s. Under Trump, the debt grew by $7.8 billion. His intellectual laziness, narcissism, and refusal to do the hard work is an ongoing stimulus program for China and our worst enemies.
On substance, Haley has a very powerful closing argument. On style, her case is even stronger.
The key dividing lines in American politics today are not between Republicans or Democrats, or liberals or conservatives, but between the serious and unserious, the mature and immature, and the clowns and the competent. Not surprisingly, this distinction provides clues about where people fit into other camps: the constitutionalists and anti-constitutionalists, and authoritarians and people who still hear freedom’s ring.
The two clearest poles in American politics may be Kari Lake and Nikki Haley. Lake prioritizes false hope over truth, fealty to Trump over faithfulness to the Constitution, the celebration of the clown show over competence, and a juvenile and prurient fascination with concepts like BDE that make 12-year-olds giggle. Haley, to her credit, dares voters to imagine someone like Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher coming to power in the United States.
DeSantis chose the wrong camp early on. He squandered his momentum and sullied his reputation with a July ad catering to the very online world of MAGA bros that relishes Lake’s flattery. DeSantis’ first notable contrast with Trump wasn’t about spending, foreign policy, or Trump’s desire to suspend the Constitution. Instead, DeSantis chose to hit Trump for being too accommodating to gay and trans people. He never recovered from the weirdness of that July ad because it represented something voters don’t want: Trump lite.
Humor, wit, and levity are essential in politics, but it’s inconceivable that a Reagan, Thatcher, or Haley would talk about BDE. Coarseness is not charm. For Haley, doubling down on dignity and real strength will go a long way in appealing to the mostly silent normal majority that is not constantly online and doesn’t get jazzed up by laser beams coming out of DeSantis’ eyes. Haley’s demeanor and, as she argues in her new ads, her “moral clarity,” may resonate powerfully with primary voters.
Finally, with poll after poll showing that Haley is best equipped to beat Biden, the time has come for her to trade out her unequivocal pledge to support the Republican nominee with a statement expressing strategic ambiguity, if not outright defiance.
She could say, “No one should support the Republican nominee until and unless every candidate pledges to support the Republican nominee.” Trump has not made that pledge and can’t be trusted not to leave the party if he isn’t the nominee. He is playing a game of “heads I win, tails you lose” with his challengers. They should engage him on their terms, not his.
Haley should also challenge Trump to debate in person and fault him for hiding behind his proxy, Vivek Ramaswamy. Trump has declined to debate because the expectation game is not in his favor. If Trump delivers anything less than a domineering performance, Trump leaners may have second thoughts. Trump is not what he used to be and may not be adept at answering serious questions about his disloyalty to the Constitution and his own voters.
Finally, Haley should make it crystal clear to Republican primary voters that if Trump is the nominee, the Republican Party as we’ve known it is over. No running mate—Haley or Zombie Reagan—will prevent the party from disintegrating if he is. Conservative Judge J. Michael Luttig, who spent years on the Supreme Court shortlist, said, “Donald Trump and his allies and supporters are a clear and present danger to American democracy.” If early state primary voters force Republicans in other states to choose between the Luttig and Trump camps, we’re going with Luttig. As a signatory of the Freedom Conservative statement of principles, I will support the not-Trump candidate most closely aligned with those principles, and many other long-time Republicans will do the same.
MAGA allies will no doubt describe this as an “establishment” revolt. But Trump is no outsider and can’t be allowed to cast himself as such. To the extent that a “Republican establishment” exists in what may be the twilight of the two-party era, it is at a Mar-a-Lago.
The Always and Only Trump faction of the GOP has a disproportionate amount of power because the rest of the party permits it. This faction is interested in domination, intimidation, and fealty, and it doesn’t want to be bothered with difficult coalition work that requires compromise. If the rest of the GOP wants the party to exist, it needs to use peaceful political force to impose a coalition mindset. Haley is best equipped to keep the GOP from fracturing.
To Never Trumpers who are frustrated that Haley has not been Never Trumpy enough, give her an opportunity to finish strong and recognize that you are not the target audience. Haley hasn’t run a perfect campaign, but she is Trump’s only real threat. Her missteps pale in comparison to Trump’s desecration of our Constitution or DeSantis’ campaign of capitulation and accommodation. Frontal assaults on Trump haven’t worked. Courage in battle must be matched with cunning and creativity.
Haley has a chance to redirect history. Primary voters in early states do need to be warned that the GOP is in mortal danger, and that message needs to be reinforced by others besides Haley so she can clearly define what she is for and will do as president.
Thomas Jefferson put it well: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
Haley has the substance and demeanor to end Trump’s tyranny and prove that an America where leaders pledge their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to the cause of freedom will define our future, not just our past.