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The Last Reaganite
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The Last Reaganite

Could anyone have outperformed Nikki Haley against Trump?

Republican Presidential candidate Nikki Haley meets New Hampshire voters in Franklin, New Hampshire, on January 22, 2024. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

As we stare into the abyss in New Hampshire, let me share a thesis that was proposed to me by our editor.

Nikki Haley is the strongest challenger Donald Trump has faced since 2016.

It feels wrong. I think it is wrong. But superficially, it’s hard to argue with.

Haley is the only Republican since Trump was elected president to give him a competitive state primary. (I use the term “competitive” loosely in light of the final polling in the Granite State.) She was the one candidate beside Trump himself to increase her share of the vote meaningfully as this year’s campaign wore on. In the end, she outlasted Mike Pence, Tim Scott, and the great post-Trump hope, Ron DeSantis.

In the process, she increased her stature marginally, something no other Trump rival managed to do. It’s inconceivable that Haley will ever lead the Republican Party—given the civic ruin to which it’s come—but she’s better known nationally today than she’s ever been and has earned a bit of respect outside MAGA circles for briefly making the GOP race interesting-ish.

Could anyone have done better, realistically?

The Ron DeSantis of anti-anti-Trumpers’ dreams might have. He would have been charismatic (or at least not conspicuously uncharismatic) on the trail, would have displayed alpha-male bravado in arguing the case against Trump’s fitness for office unapologetically, and would have run a top-flight political operation with the executive deftness about which he’s forever boasting as governor. He would have taken a different strategic approach to the primary too, tacking toward the center initially to consolidate anti-Trump conservatives before wooing pro-Trump populists instead of vice versa.

Imaginary Ron DeSantis would have given Old Man Trump a run for his money!

But in fairness to the real Ron DeSantis, he’s probably still the consensus choice of Republican voters to be the party’s nominee if Trump leaves the race tomorrow. He remains popular within the GOP and is certainly better positioned on policy to unite populists and conservatives than the old-school Reaganite Haley is. For all of his mistakes, the governor’s message of “Trump but not mentally defective” was a likely winner with this rotten electorate, if only the mentally defective genuine article hadn’t been on the ballot.

So, no, Haley wasn’t Trump’s strongest challenger. She performed well but owes her last-candidate-standing status mainly to good fortune. Because Trump was obsessed with tearing down DeSantis, the true threat to his coronation, Haley managed to escape his criticism until late in the campaign. And because DeSantis chose to chase rainbows among the immovable MAGA base instead of pitching himself toward traditional conservatives, Haley was left with Trump-skeptical Republicans largely to herself. Her secret sauce in New Hampshire isn’t even Republicans, in fact, but independents: She leads Trump in polling among that group but gets crushed among voters from her own party. In Iowa, where she finished third, the final poll before the caucus found that 49 percent of Trump’s voters were “extremely enthusiastic” about their candidate while 23 percent of DeSantis’ voters were. For Haley, that share was only 9 percent.

None of this screams “strength.” There is no meaningful “Nikki Haley constituency” inside the Republican Party, only a robust anti-Trump constituency that settled on her as the vessel for their contempt. Someone would have ended up getting 35 percent or so against the frontrunner in New Hampshire, I suspect. With skill and luck, she turned out to be “someone.”

But could any other Republican plausibly have done better than she did?

Having Nikki Haley as the final obstacle to an unthinkable post-January-6 presidential nomination for Trump is poetic, even if she isn’t the strongest candidate he’s faced.

It’s poetic because she’s the last promising young Republican leader of the pre-Trump era who hasn’t yet been embarrassed in a primary by the leader of the party or completely coopted by Trumpism. Or both.

Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are long gone, casualties of Trumpmania in 2016. DeSantis cut his teeth on Tea Party conservatism before slyly pivoting to MAGA populism and got obliterated this cycle anyway. Tim Scott, another pol once cracked up to be an important figure in the GOP’s future, was so irrelevant during his own brief run for president this year that Trump didn’t bother attacking him. Scott spent the past weekend lamely ducking questions from reporters about the frontrunner’s blatantly racial needling of Haley in the home stretch of the New Hampshire vote.

All four men have endorsed Trump in the past two weeks.

Other young Republicans who once showed leadership potential have become enthusiastic drones of the MAGA Borg. Elise Stefanik came to Congress as a moderate Republican keen to recruit other young women to run for office and now spouts endless inanities in Trump’s defense to protect her chances of becoming his running mate. J.D. Vance spent 2016 as a Trump critic, grew increasingly fascist-curious as populism spread through his party, and was last seen campaigning for Trump in a red MAGA hat.

The “future” of conservatism, at least as it exists within the Republican Party, is gone. Liz Cheney was purged, Mitt Romney is retiring, Mitch McConnell is a thousand years old and doubtless will soon retire. Young leaders of the Tea Party era, from Scott Walker to Bobby Jindal to the explicitly anti-Trump Paul Ryan, are out of politics. There’s nothing left.

Except Haley. For a few more hours, anyway.

She got herself elected governor of a conservative Southern state before she turned 40 despite being a nonwhite woman. She jabbed at Trump in her rebuttal to Barack Obama’s State of the Union address in 2016 on behalf of her party, then rallied behind Rubio before the South Carolina primary in hopes of blocking Trump’s path to the nomination. When she became his ambassador to the United Nations, she sounded more like Ronald Reagan than like her boss when addressing that body.

Despite the total lack of any constituency for grown-up talk about federal spending, she insisted on leveling with voters about the need for entitlement reform in this year’s campaign. And she’s been stalwart in calling for more U.S. aid to Ukraine, true to her instinct for using American power to weaken the world’s worst regimes.

She’s the candidate of the future, according to the Republican past: Upbeat, forward-looking, inclusive, brimming with “shining city on the hill” yadda yadda. But she’s a very weird match for a party that’s grown nostalgic, revanchist, tribalist, and pessimistic.

Nikki Haley is the last Reagan conservative, or at least the last Reagan conservative who matters. It’s fitting that she should be the last electoral victim of a politician who ended Reagan conservatism as the right’s dominant ideology and replaced it with … this:

I invite rank-and-file Reaganites to treat tonight’s results from New Hampshire as an opportunity to reckon squarely with what remains for them in this party now that Haley, and everyone like her, have been squashed and expelled from the new GOP establishment

I know what some of you are thinking as you read that. “What about Brian Kemp?”

Kemp 2024 is an intriguing what-if, in hindsight. While Glenn Youngkin is the Southern governor who got most of the hype as a potential late entrant as DeSantis faltered, the thought of Youngkin prying away populist voters from Trump is ridiculous. He has none of the “one of us” authenticity that grassroots Republicans crave in a culture-war champion. His politics might properly be envisioned as Mitt Romney wearing a Donald Trump mask. A country-clubber doing a half-hearted MAGA impression was never going to beat the MAGA-in-chief.

Kemp is more interesting because he has beaten Donald Trump—sort of—in a primary once before. He’s also authentically Southern and conservative in a way that the red-vested private-equity wizard Youngkin is not. You can imagine Kemp as a presidential candidate pursuing the strategy that DeSantis eschewed, aiming to lock up Trump-skeptical conservative Republicans first and then reaching out to “soft” Trump supporters who are willing to listen to alternatives.

It’s conceivable that he would have outperformed DeSantis and Haley. But it’s also worth remembering that, as skillful as the governor of Georgia was in repelling a Trump-backed primary challenge, he took care not to criticize Trump himself during that campaign. If you’re of the belief that DeSantis and Haley failed in part because they were too timid in speaking up about Trump’s unfitness, there’s no reason based on prior practice to think Kemp would have been more aggressive.

And if you admire the political acumen Kemp evinced in devising a way to not just defeat but embarrass Trump’s candidate in the 2022 Georgia gubernatorial primary, you should consider what it means that he looked at running for president this cycle and declined. If Brian Kemp had seen a path to victory in a national primary, one assumes he would have taken it. The fact that he didn’t bother to try speaks volumes.

Diehard partisan conservatives who can’t bear to shed their Republican affiliation despite the repulsive spectacle of a third Trump nomination are free to hang on for four more years and cling to the dream of Kemp 2028. (Hopefully we’ll still have a country in 2028. Right, Ron?) But I fear you’re setting yourself up for a reprise of the 2024 primary, possibly with Trump running again and possibly not. If you haven’t digested yet that the voters of this party crave entertaining demagogues, not accomplished executives, as leaders, I don’t know what more it’ll take to convince you. At this point I wouldn’t feel confident that Kemp could beat, say, Matt Gaetz in a one-on-one national Republican primary, especially with Trumpworld in Gaetz’s corner. 

There’s no place left in the GOP for Nikki Haley and people who think like her. If the result in New Hampshire accomplishes nothing else, it should at least make that clear.

To ask if Haley or DeSantis or Kemp or anyone else would have been the strongest challenger to Trump is to miss the point of this year’s primary, I think.

If he were going to be defeated by anyone, the political groundwork to demystify him needed to be laid long ago. And it needed to be laid in concert by Republicans, not by scattered voices like Cheney or Romney.

Jonathan Chait identifies the grand error that made a third nomination possible. It wasn’t DeSantis choosing to target Trump base voters instead of wooing disaffected conservatives. It was the party writ large allowing Republican voters to believe that the 2020 election really had been rigged. Once Trump’s conservative enemies allowed him to wash the “loser” stink off himself with nonsense about a stolen victory, he was free to run as a de facto presidential incumbent. And incumbents never lose.

The outbreak of conscientiousness that swept through the Republican Party after January 6, 2021 gave way like a fever. One week after the insurrection, Axios reported that Republicans were “divided whether to do it with one quick kill via impeachment, or let him slowly fade away.” The framing of the question answered itself: Why take on the risk of fighting Trump and alienating his supporters when he would simply go away on his own?

The party [ended up] divided over Trump’s election lies and coup attempt, but the divide had an asymmetric quality. One faction was obsessed with litigating its beliefs and repeating them endlessly, while the opposing faction only wanted the issue to go away. The outcome of this one-sided argument was inevitable. The percentage of Republicans who believed Trump has steadily risen.

I’m skeptical that an old-guard establishmentarian like Haley who appeals mainly to independents could have beaten Trump in a primary even if Republican voters had come to their senses about 2020. But could the more populist-friendly DeSantis or Kemp have leveraged doubts among the base about Trump’s electability into a victory?

I’d like to go back in time and rerun that race and find out.

On the other hand, I’m also skeptical that there’s any critical mass of influential Republicans that could have won a messaging war with Trump among the grassroots right about whether the 2020 election had been rigged or not.

We’ve discussed the dynamics of the right-wing ecosystem many times in this newsletter. The cardinal rule, in media and in electoral politics, is to do everything possible to shield your audience from truths that you know will upset them. Twenty-five years ago, before the internet and competitive primaries, prominent Republicans had more leeway to tell it like it is; they were the only game in town. But in an America of grassroots-funded primary challenges and infinite digital “bespoke realities,” there’s always some lean and hungry populist opportunist eager to cater to the prejudices of an audience that doesn’t want to hear what it doesn’t want to hear. And so the incentive, at every level, is toward propaganda.

As a colleague said to me recently, it’s tantamount to drug-dealing. If you’re in the business of dealing copium to Trump addicts and a crisis of conscience leads you to stop dealing, cutting off their supply won’t force your customers to get clean. All it’ll do is force them to find another dealer, and there are lots of dealers. So why not keep dealing and keep their business?

All of this explains why it’s become a rite of passage in the Trump era for losing conservative candidates to presage their exit from the presidential race by grumbling about right-wing media’s fealty to the frontrunner. Ron DeSantis did it two weeks ago and Nikki Haley did it this morning, warning the hosts of Fox & Friends that “I don’t care how much y’all want to coronate Donald Trump.” If the two had taken Chait’s advice by joining with other Republican politicians in late 2020 to speak with one voice—loudly and often—that Trump had lost the election, they know what would have happened.

They would have been demagogued to oblivion as uniparty stooges by Trump and his many drug dealers in right-wing media, and not just the fringy ones. They, not he, would have seen their presidential chances suffer in 2024 from their decision to tell the truth. Go figure that their antagonism toward those dealers tends to flare whenever they’re forced to face the zonked-out voters of the Republican base.

But all of this is just another roundabout way of saying that there aren’t enough conscientious people left in this party to make it worth saving, no?

The reason Republican leaders like DeSantis and Haley and Mitch McConnell weren’t more outspoken about Trump having lost the 2020 election is because they couldn’t imagine that the voters of their party would triple down on nominating him in 2024. After a coup attempt and an insurrection, surely the grassroots right would find someone else to rally around in the next presidential election. There was no need to rub salt in their wounds by crowing that Trump lost to Biden fairly. He was finished politically regardless.

To believe that he wasn’t, one would need to believe that GOP voters and the media that serves them are … deplorable, to borrow a term.

Irony of ironies, then, it turns out that prominent Republicans who are forever being accused of despising their own constituents actually overestimated the native decency of those constituents in choosing not to move more forcefully against Trump. In a few hours, we’ll find out from New Hampshire just how badly they overestimated it. Let those of us who weren’t so naive draw the appropriate lesson from the results about whether we would do right by our country to continue partnering with such people.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.