CONCORD, New Hampshire—Nikki Haley’s remarks Tuesday night after losing the first-in-the-nation primary were designed to enrage Donald Trump and make plain that two consecutive defeats, in the Granite State and in Iowa, would not drive her out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
“With Donald Trump, Republicans have lost almost every competitive election,” she said, criticizing the former president’s electoral prowess. “We lost the Senate. We lost the House. We lost the White House. We lost in 2018. We lost in 2020. And we lost in 2022.” She also went after his legal problems and advanced age: “With Donald Trump, you have one bout of chaos after another. This court case, that controversy, this tweet, that senior moment. … I’ve long called for mental competency tests for politicians over the age of 75.”
Then she twisted the knife, calling him, essentially, a coward: “Trump claims he’d do better than me in one of those tests. Maybe he would. Maybe he wouldn’t. But if he thinks that, then he should have no problem standing on a debate stage.”
Haley’s aggressive concession speech, which sounded nothing like a concession, was part of a deliberate plan to bait Trump. It revealed the former South Carolina governor is not approaching her 2024 bid as other Republicans who have since dropped out and endorsed the former president.
It was a safe bet that if she took the stage early here at her election night party in Concord—shortly after most news organizations called the race for Trump and roughly an hour before he delivered his victory speech—the former president would be watching. Indeed, Haley’s speech was aimed directly at Trump as much as it was to Republican primary voters. And her message was clear: I’m not going anywhere yet.
Haley appears to be approaching this new phase of her campaign with a devil-may-care attitude, unconcerned about finding her place in the Trump-era GOP.
“She’s gonna fight, but politics aren’t her life,” one source close to the campaign told The Dispatch Tuesday evening. “She’s happily married, with kids whom she loves, and a happy life.”
In the modern era, no Republican has become the nominee without winning either Iowa or New Hampshire. Trump’s dominance in national polls and a schedule of upcoming caucuses and primaries means the frontrunner is poised to win by even bigger margins than his victory in New Hampshire, which stood at approximately 54 percent to 43 percent at press time. And with an open GOP primary in 2028 on the horizon, there’s a reason why two of Trump’s prominent rivals—Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis—have since exited the current primary and endorsed him.
But the former South Carolina governor is not planning to follow suit anytime soon, according to sources close to the Republican and her campaign. Haley served in Trump’s Cabinet as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, but sources tell us she has no interest in serving as Trump’s vice president or in a second administration. And she simply is not interested in being a perpetual candidate—playing it safe to better position herself for another White House run in 2028. Her goal, these sources insist, is 2024 or bust.
Haley’s campaign said Tuesday it raised more than $1.5 million since Sunday, when DeSantis exited the primary. It claims to have the resources to keep the operation funded through Super Tuesday—March 5—when 15 states will hold nominating contests and more than a third of the total delegates going to the Republican National Convention will be awarded. Her team has scheduled a $4 million ad buy in South Carolina, which holds the next competitive primary on February 24 and which is also her home state.
And her super PAC, SFA Fund, is claiming to have raised “millions of dollars in the last seven days” to fuel Haley’s difficult path ahead. The group is planning television advertising in South Carolina and other political activity.
“We are funded, we are going to be able to fight through in South Carolina. We’re excited to have the opportunity to stand up and tell Nikki’s story in South Carolina,” Mark Harris, chief strategist at the super PAC, told reporters Tuesday. “We’re going to have the resources and the effort to go assist her as she continues to campaign in the days to come.”
The odds Haley outpaces Trump down the line are no doubt slim. Trump is on track to win the Nevada caucus on February 8, scooping up all of the state’s delegates to the Milwaukee convention. He also leads Haley by 30 percentage points in polls of South Carolina primary voters. (Haley is not participating in the caucus.)
Haley might have been elected governor twice in South Carolina before joining Trump’s Cabinet, but the former president is particularly strong there, enjoying the support of grassroots conservatives and the state’s Republican establishment. Yet Trump is irritated with Haley for vowing to continue fighting him, and that irritation dominated his victory speech in Nashua on Tuesday, where he gathered with supporters to celebrate.
“And just a little note to Nikki—we’re going to win,” Trump told a festive crowd that filled up a hotel ballroom to hear from a candidate many Republicans are now referring to as the presumptive nominee. “But if she did, she would be under investigation by [the Democrats] and let me tell you five reasons why already. Not big reasons. A little bit of stuff she doesn’t want to talk about.”
A few minutes later, Trump turned to Tim Scott and opened a new line of ridicule directed at Haley. (The senator endorsed the former president in recent days and joined him on stage for his victory lap.)
“Did you ever think that—she actually appointed you, Tim?” Trump said, referring to the fact that in 2012 then-Gov. Haley appointed Scott, then a congressman, to fill a vacant South Carolina Senate seat. Trump, noting that Scott is nonetheless backing him for president, then said: “You must really hate her. It’s a shame.” Scott responded by saying: “I just love you.” Trump supporters appeared far less concerned than the former president about Haley’s decision to fight on.
“Who cares what she does,” said John Fredericks, a Pittsburgh-based Trump supporter and conservative talk radio host who traveled here to attend the former president’s New Hampshire victory party. “She wants to stay in? Great. The water’s warm, keep fighting, keep getting donor money. Keep letting them waste money to have some kind of elitist dream where somehow she comes back and wins. Maybe she thinks something will happen to the president.”
In South Carolina, Republican insiders who have followed Haley’s political career say they are not surprised she is refusing to give up on her bid for the Republican presidential nomination. The former governor has not expressed any desire to run for Senate. As a former two-term governor, there’s also nowhere for her to go in elected office in Columbia, the state capital.
And during a one-on-one conversation with a voter here in New Hampshire just days before the primary, Haley ruled out serving as Trump’s running mate. “I don’t want to be anybody’s vice president. It is off the table,” she told independent voter Dan O’Donnell during a campaign swing through Mary Anne’s diner in Amherst, New Hampshire, to stump for votes among the lunch crowd. “I don’t want to be vice president.”
Then there’s this factor: Haley is by nature an outsider.
She defeated entrenched establishment Republicans on her way up the political ladder—and was never much of a party person during her tenure in the South Carolina General Assembly and later, the governor’s mansion. The notion that she might bow to an establishment frontrunner for the sake of Republican unity ahead of a general election versus President Joe Biden is probably not part of her political calculus. It is also possible Haley views 2024 as her best chance of capturing the White House, despite being an underdog’s underdog in the GOP primary.
Haley’s thinking, a Republican operative in South Carolina speculated, “would be, one, I’m not going to be pushed out of this by people I just don’t care that much about.” This source added: “The party apparatus is not something she’s ever been moved by, even when she was governor. So she’s going to stay in this thing because she thinks it’s the right fight, because she’s motivated by it and honestly, because she doesn’t know what else she’s going to do besides this.”
And people close to her campaign say she isn’t affected by the rush to endorse Trump by so many in the national GOP’s establishment. That includes plenty whom Haley herself has boosted in tough spots, such as Rep. Nancy Mace running for reelection in 2022 and Sen. Marco Rubio ahead of his second-place finish in South Carolina’s 2016 primary.
“This is more of a reflection on them than her. People have done this to her at every single turn,” said the person close to her campaign. “She doesn’t take this personally.”