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Can Nikki Haley Be the Consensus Candidate—And Will It Matter?
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Can Nikki Haley Be the Consensus Candidate—And Will It Matter?

Plus: Joe Biden goes on the offensive against Republicans, and Rep. Mike Gallagher on the GOP field.

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaks at the Des Moines Register SoapBox during the Iowa State Fair on August 12, 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Happy Wednesday! We’ve got a Republican debate tonight and a jam-packed newsletter today—let’s get right to it.

Up to Speed

  • The Republican candidates for president—sans the frontrunner, former President Donald Trump—will take the stage tonight at California’s Reagan Presidential Library for the second GOP primary debate. Trump plans to counter-program the event with a Michigan rally designed to highlight the ongoing autoworkers’ strike.
  • Sen. Bob Menendez, indicted last Friday on federal corruption charges, isn’t going down without a fight. In a defiant Monday press conference, Menendez said he would not resign and suggested he plans to run again next year: “Not only will I be exonerated, but I will still be New Jersey’s senior senator.” Menendez is accused of influencing U.S. foreign policy and funneling information to the Egyptian government in exchange for cash payouts and lavish gifts including gold bars, mortgage payments, and a Mercedes-Benz. 
  • Meanwhile, Democratic calls for Menendez’s resignation have reached a fever pitch: More than half of his Democratic Senate colleagues, including New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, have publicly demanded he step down. 
  • In an apparent attempt to preempt challenges sparked by Menendez’s legal troubles, his son Rep. Rob Menendez decided this was the week to announce his own reelection bid. He said he would run to serve the residents of his district, “in stark contrast to those who may run to further their own naked political ambition.” The New Jersey freshman also defended his father: “I strongly believe in his integrity and his values, and look forward to seeing him move past this distraction to continue fighting for our state in the United States Senate.”

Could It Be Nikki? 

If Gov. Ron DeSantis continues his monthslong slump in the polls, will former President Donald Trump simply glide to a third presidential nomination? Or is there still a path for another challenger to emerge in the role DeSantis was supposed to occupy: the opposition-unifying consensus candidate?

Going into the second debate, the person best positioned to rise to that long-shot challenge may be former governor and ambassador Nikki Haley.

Haley still lags well behind DeSantis (to say nothing of Trump) in national polls. But she has recently seen significant positive movement in key early states—most notably her home state of South Carolina, where two polls this month put her at 18 percent support, and New Hampshire, where she is suddenly averaging 13 percent support after months stuck in the low single digits.

Major donors are paying attention. While many of DeSantis’ possible funders have started getting cold feet, four donors told Reuters this week that they had been impressed by Haley’s rise and were “keen to donate should she continue to strengthen as a candidate.”

Unlike DeSantis, Haley is a gifted retail politician: The more she’s pounded the pavement in early states, the better she’s polled there. And she’s benefited from DeSantis’ central strategic miscalculation: His dogged insistence on getting to Trump’s right on every issue, no matter how broadly unpopular, left a significant lane for a Trump alternative who didn’t profile as a glassy-eyed zealot.

“Ron took a risk that he could not win without chewing into Trump’s base, and that he could do that first, hoping the anti-Trump Republicans would consolidate behind whoever became his main challenger,” Republican strategist Brad Todd tells The Dispatch. “The problem for DeSantis is that Haley outperformed him in the debate, and she’s a lot better fit for Trump’s critics.”

And unlike Vivek Ramaswamy—whom the rest of the field views, as the first debate showed, with irritation bordering on real dislike—it’s plausible to imagine Haley racking up endorsements from departing candidates as the field narrows.

“If she’s second in Iowa and New Hampshire it’s on in South Carolina,” one strategist working to find a Trump alternative tells The Dispatch. “That would clear the field, I think. But second in Iowa is tough. It’s in range but tough.”

Iowa is the early state where DeSantis’ hold on second place is most stable, with recent polls putting his lead over Haley there at between 4 and 13 points. The Florida governor sees a strong showing there as do-or-die for his presidential hopes, and has spent months hustling around the state; his super PAC, Never Back Down, has spent nearly $17 million boosting him there already.

Ironically, Haley’s biggest challenge in the Hawkeye State may be the same as the one facing Trump: an abortion-policy pitch that tacks toward the center and risks alienating pro-life voters in the process. Haley has repeatedly argued that debates over a national abortion ban are counterproductive since there’s not enough support for it in Congress. Instead, Republicans should “stop demonizing” the issue and seek a “national consensus” to “save as many babies as we can while supporting women in difficult situations.”

It’s an approach that’s designed to blunt Democrats’ recent heavy electoral advantage on the issue. Haley is betting she’ll be able to sell pro-lifers on it: What they really need now, the thinking goes, is a well-spoken champion who can help win the national conversation on the issue, not a lot of moderate-alienating talk about who will commit to a federal ban that’s dead on arrival in the Senate.

But making that sort of pragmatic approach to pro-life evangelicals in Iowa may be a tough sell. While discussing Trump’s recent comments on abortion with The Dispatch this week, Iowa pastor Terry Amann brought up Haley unprompted: “I think the person that I would like to challenge aside from Donald Trump is Nikki Haley,” he said. “Because she too is falling back on, well, these are political realities, we have to have this much in the Senate. … It’s like, Nikki, just do the right thing. We claim to be Christians, let’s lean on our faith. God’s gonna intervene.”

Biden Moves to Upstage GOP in California, Michigan

MOORPARK, California—Sitting presidents don’t admit political vulnerability. Doing so would energize the opposition and depress the home team. So when asked to address President Joe Biden’s glaring weakness in public opinion polls, his campaign manager remained diplomatic.

“We’re continuing to just really stay focused on our strategy, and we think that it’s important, that right now, we’re really getting our message out in terms all that this president and vice president have accomplished,” Julie Chavez Rodriguez told reporters, responding to a question from The Dispatch during a news conference to unveil the United Farm Workers union endorsement of Biden’s 2024 reelection bid. “We think it’s important that voters understand the choice that’s before them.”

Pressed to explain why polls show Biden statistically tied with former President Donald Trump in a hypothetical rematch, Rodriguez said: “We’re not going to take anything for granted in this race. For us, it’s about getting out, making sure we’re doing the hard work. It’s why we have been up on the air with a historic early investment in advertising, $25 million—reaching out to Latino voters, African American voters, young voters—making sure that they know, really, what this president has done.”  

Translation: Yes, the Biden campaign is well aware of the political challenges the 80-year-old president faces—and it is working to mitigate them. But Rodriguez is not going to commit political malpractice by saying so explicitly.

Rodriguez was speaking from a working farm here in Moorpark, an agricultural and suburban community on the eastern edge of Ventura County, roughly 48 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

Flanked by farm workers donning white T-shirts reading “Biden Harris UFW” and surrounded by crops of parsley, radishes, and other vegetables, she also was here to contrast Biden with Trump and the other Republicans seeking the White House. Just up the road in nearby Simi Valley, most of the top Republican contenders are gathering tonight for a televised debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute. With one exception: the former president, the overwhelming GOP frontrunner.

The latest messaging from the Biden campaign seems to indicate the president’s team expects a rematch of the 2020 contest. Indeed, Biden was in Michigan Tuesday walking the picket line with striking automobile workers, a trip scheduled after Trump announced he would deliver a speech to union members Wednesday rather than participate in the debate. 

So why show up to make mischief at the Reagan Library while the former president was elsewhere? Rodriguez claims there is little difference between the former president and the Republicans chasing him in the primary. Perhaps the Biden campaign is buying somee political insurance.

“Whether it is Donald Trump or any other opponent, we believe they’re all putting forward the same extreme policies and we believe President Biden and Vice President Harris have a much better vision for the future of our country,” Rodriguez says.

Rep. Gallagher Weighs In on Tonight’s Debate

Rep. Mike Gallagher, the Wisconsin Republican who chairs the House’s select committee on competition with the Chinese Communist Party, usually steers clear of intra-GOP politics talk. So Haley—who is apparently champing at the bit to get back from maternity leave—jumped at the chance to get his thoughts about tonight’s debate. You can read the rest of their interview here. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Haley: Hi, Congressman. Is Donald Trump going to be the nominee?

Gallagher: I’m not prepared to concede that point.

Why not?

I don’t think he should be the nominee, if for no other reason than I think a younger candidate would make sense—a generational shift. Particularly given how old Biden is. He’s older than the People’s Republic of China itself. And Trump would be as old as Biden was when he took office, when he takes office. I think a younger candidate would just win. Whereas Trump lost to Biden in 2020. He’s got a dominant position now, but the field needs to consolidate. I was on a presidential campaign in 2016, so maybe that reflects my bias, but the field remained fractured in 2016, which redounded to Trump’s advantage.

Have you endorsed anyone?

I have not. But if you had a DeSantis/Haley ticket, it would be unbeatable. It would speak to all factions of the Republican Party, which is a big tent party. You’d have two governors with foreign policy experience, one of which is a veteran. One of which was the ambassador to the U.N. I mean, they would crush—just crush—Biden/Harris. I don’t think it’d even be close. So if the field consolidates, it makes something like that possible.

You’re mentioning pragmatic reasons not to support Trump—he didn’t win and he’s old. But there are also other reasons. I remember you posting a video from your office on January 6 asking him to tell his supporters to stop.

[sarcastically] I don’t recall this.

If he is the nominee, will you support him?

I’ve already said I don’t think he should be the nominee. I’m not prepared to concede that point just yet. Obviously, I’m not going to support Biden. I intend to support the nominee. But let’s have a primary. It shouldn’t be a coronation. I want to win. I’ve seen the price of losing for the last two years, and the price is high, in actual dollars and in terms of foreign policy.

What do you want to see in tonight’s debate?

I’m not saying we need, like, physical combat onstage to eliminate people. But, um, you know—I’ll just leave it at that. 

On a serious note, I just want a serious national security debate. You’re at the Reagan Library. I think it should be informed by the Reagan administration’s approach to the world stage. There’s meaningful debates within the party right now—I think they may be frustrating some people—but I actually think they’re healthy, and they’re not new, right? We’ve always had this tension in the Republican Party between isolationism and internationalism. I actually think it’s a productive tension. So on China, the most important question—beyond communicating a clear assessment of the threat and a sense of optimism to the American people that we’re the good guys, we deserve to win this new Cold War, channeling Reagan in that regard—is the military question. What is your plan, beyond sort of invoking Reagan’s name and peace through strength? What is your actual, coherent plan for cutting through the Pentagon bureaucracy and building a more lethal military? And oh, by the way, confronting a historic recruitment crisis we have right now that threatens the very existence of the all-volunteer force. 

When it comes to economics, the Biden administration just released an executive order designed to limit the flow of U.S. capital to certain sectors in China. Certain Republicans don’t want any restrictions. They’re more sympathetic to Wall Street’s position. I think it doesn’t go far enough. I think that’s a healthy debate to have, the nature of guardrails on outbound capital flows to ensure that we’re not funding our own destruction by allowing Americans to invest in Chinese military companies.

The other question that I know is falling off the radar, but I think is still super important, is this question of TikTok. TikTok could become the most dominant media platform in America soon. Young Americans get news from TikTok. I think it’s a really bad idea to allow a CCP influencer-controlled app to be the dominant media platform in America, but it’s a very hard issue to deal with. The Trump administration tried, and they ran into a buzz saw. The Biden administration balked at doing anything about it. And now Republicans are gun shy because the Warner effort in the Senate was too broad, and it scared a lot of people off. So I guess the question would be, do you think it should be banned, or a sale forced? And how will you do it? How will you succeed where Trump failed and where Biden fears to tread?

Notable and Quotable

“I have withdrawn thousands of dollars in cash from my personal savings account, which I have kept for emergencies and because of the history of my family facing confiscation in Cuba. Now this may seem old-fashioned, but these were monies drawn from my personal savings account based on the income that I have lawfully derived.” 

—Sen. Bob Menendez, explaining why federal agents found nearly $500,000 in cash hidden around his New Jersey home during a raid, September 25, 2023

Andrew Egger's Headshot

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

David M. Drucker's Headshot

David M. Drucker

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.

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Haley Byrd Wilt

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.