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Nikki Haley’s Campaign-in-Waiting Starts Its Engines
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Nikki Haley’s Campaign-in-Waiting Starts Its Engines

Two existing Haley groups form the foundation of a possible 2024 bid.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition Annual Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada, on November 19, 2022.(Photo by WADE VANDERVORT/AFP via Getty Images)

Nikki Haley is planning to challenge Donald Trump for supremacy atop the Republican Party—and she could make her 2024 presidential bid official as soon as next month.

Haley possesses the architecture of a robust White House campaign operation through the Stand For America political action committee and Stand For America, a 501(c)(4) policy-focused political nonprofit organization. Trusted senior aides are already on board, prepared to step into positions directing political strategy, fundraising, communications, grassroots outreach, and policy development.

“She’s definitely positioned to launch,” Dave Wilson, president of the Palmetto Family Council in Columbia, South Carolina, said of the 51-year-old former United States ambassador to the United Nations. “The rocket is fueled and ready. I think we’re just in the countdown now.” 

Haley—whose extensive resume features a term-and-a-half as governor of South Carolina, a crucial early primary state—also comes to the 2024 contest with a turnkey campaign message.

In 2016, Haley prepared for a predicted Trump loss to Hillary Clinton with a statement that read, in part: “After three consecutive presidential defeats, my fellow Republicans must make changes.” As I reported in In Trump’s Shadow: The Battle for 2024 and the Future of the GOP, the idea was to establish the then-governor as a national figure who could resuscitate a party beset by turmoil.

It’s not all that different today, on the heels of three disappointing elections with Trump at the helm of the Republican Party. “We have lost the last seven out of eight popular votes for president. It’s time we bring in a new generation,” she said to Fox News’ Bret Baier earlier this month. Past, meet prologue.

Most prominent Republicans mulling a 2024 bid—former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, among others—appear content taking their time to assess the slowly developing field. Why give Trump, the only declared candidate in the race, a plump bullseye on which to slap a devastating nickname? 

The GOP base adores the Florida governor, and his poll numbers are high in hypothetical 2024 matchups. It’s created a unique dynamic: DeSantis is in no rush, yet he’s motivating other would-be opponents to hang back and wonder: Is the governor peaking too soon? Is support for him building?

But not Haley. 

Republican insiders in South Carolina who have closely tracked her career, as well as national party operatives keeping tabs on 2024, say several factors are motivating Haley’s early move. Chief among them: reconnecting with grassroots conservatives at home in South Carolina, the state that votes third on the GOP presidential nominating calendar and the first state to vote in the heavily Republican South.

Haley also has competition. DeSantis has emerged as the primary alternative to Trump nationwide, but he also has made inroads with influential Republican donors in South Carolina. Changing the hearts and minds of Republican voters, donors, and activists who have flocked to the Florida governor is going to take some time, if it can be done at all. Meanwhile, Sen. Tim Scott, a black South Carolina Republican, is considering a presidential bid and would compete with Haley to bring some of the state’s political activists on board.  

Then there’s Trump.

The former president has had trouble enlisting the support of prominent South Carolina Republicans for his 2024 campaign. Many were planning to stay away from Trump’s campaign event in Columbia on Saturday, a sign the party is somewhat fatigued and unenthusiastic about his third presidential campaign. Yet he still enjoys support from much of the GOP base, not to mention South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.

Also backing the former president is South Carolina Treasurer Curtis Loftis, elected to the office in 2010, the same year Haley was elected governor. “As the field stands today, I’m on the Trump team,” Loftis told The Dispatch

Chad Connelly, a former state GOP chairman, said Haley—who once proclaimed she would not run against her old boss—has “a challenging road ahead of her” in her home state. “She needs to reconnect with her base, reconnect with the people who loved her, and it’s going to take time,” Connelly said. Haley’s on-again, off-again relationship with Trump is another reason she needs to remind a GOP base smitten with the former president why they used to adore her.  (Her team declined to comment for this story.)

Still, as Haley is fond of reminding naysayers, she has never lost an election. And they were not always easy. 

In Haley’s first race for public office—for a seat in the South Carolina House of Representatives—she ousted a GOP incumbent who had served four decades, longer than any Republican in the history of the chamber. In 2010, she won the Republican nomination for governor after beginning the crowded race as an asterisk. Haley, always confident in her abilities, appears to be betting on more unlikely success. 

Some Republicans believe she might be right. 

What better way to distinguish herself versus Trump, DeSantis, and anyone else, than by becoming the second declared candidate in the primary? The contrast is stark. Republican voters can choose between a white, male, soon-to-be 77-year-old defeated former president who has led the GOP to three consecutive electoral disappointments, or a nonwhite woman in her early 50s, born of immigrant parents, with conservative bona fides on most critical issues that are unassailable. 

From this vantage point, Trump’s characteristic inability to restrain himself from attacking opponents—even those who are polling in the low single digits—might be a gift to a candidate like Haley. 

Trump will unlikely be able to resist targeting Haley considering their history. She served in his cabinet for nearly two years. Their rapport was famously copacetic but deteriorated when Haley criticized Trump’s handling of his loss in 2020. She has tried to repair the relationship, but it is not what it was.

“If she is the next candidate to get in, they are foils unlike any we have seen so far, and it certainly shakes things up because she would be the alternative to the former president until someone else jumps into the primary,” said Rob Godfrey, a past adviser to Haley and McMaster and the spokesman for the South Carolina GOP during the 2008 presidential primary.  He’s also staying neutral in the unfolding 2024 contest. Trump “has never been pitted one-on-one against someone with her story or her strengths, one of which is being able to effectively throw a punch or counterpunch.”

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.