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Haley Continues Her Cross-Country Stump Ahead of Super Tuesday
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Haley Continues Her Cross-Country Stump Ahead of Super Tuesday

Plus: With McConnell retiring, who might lead Senate Republicans next?

Happy Friday! We’ll get behind any candidate for office who prioritizes declaring Leap Day a quadrennial national holiday.

Up to Speed

  • This week was busy in the race for the Republican nomination for Senate in Michigan. First, Justin Amash, the libertarian-leaning former congressman, entered the primary, declaring on X he would not be “a rubber stamp for either party, but an independent-minded senator prepared to challenge anyone and everyone on the people’s behalf.” Second, businessman Sandy Pensler was endorsed by former GOP presidential contender Vivek Ramaswamy, with the wealthy biotech entrepreneur vowing in a statement: “I am going to help [Pensler] in any way that I can to win.” And third, Great Lakes Conservatives Fund—the super PAC supporting former Rep. Mike Rogers—publicized a fresh poll showing the former congressman leading with 32 percent, followed by former Rep. Peter Meijer at 12 percent and Pensler at just 4 percent. You can read more from the poll memo here.
  • President Joe Biden and his predecessor, likely Republican nominee Donald Trump, made dueling visits to the southern border on Thursday amid polling that shows voters are highly concerned about an ongoing surge of illegal immigration and asylum seekers entering the U.S. from Mexico. Biden was briefed by federal border patrol and local elected officials in Brownsville, Texas, about the myriad of challenges and threats posed by the situation. “It’s time to act,” Biden said. “We can’t wait any longer.” Meanwhile, Trump traveled to Eagle Pass, Texas, where he received a similar briefing from Greg Abbott, the state’s Republican governor. “The United States is being overrun by the Biden, migrant crime,” Trump said. “He’s destroying our country.”
  • After a couple of campaign rallies in Virginia on Thursday, Nikki Haley brought her underdog bid for the Republican presidential nomination to Washington, D.C., on Friday as she continues her multistate swing in advance of next week’s “Super Tuesday” primaries. Next up, stops in North Carolina, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, and Texas. Haley also told reporters in Washington on Friday that her campaign raised $12 million in February.
  • Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky announced this week he would step down as the chamber’s No. 1 ranking Republican in November, ending his run at the top after an unprecedented 18 years. McConnell and Trump have been at odds since at least the weeks after the 2020 election, when the 45th president lobbied GOP senators to oppose certifying Biden’s Electoral College victory. The Senate Republican leader counseled the opposite—and vigorously so. But doubts about McConnell’s ability to continue as the Republican leader long-term only spread after a series of health events, including one that kept him out of the Senate for several months last year.
  • Sen. Katie Britt of Alabama will deliver the Republican rebuttal to Biden’s March 7 State of the Union address, McConnell and House Speaker Mike Johnson announced Thursday. Britt, a former aide to Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, was elected to the Senate in 2022 to succeed Shelby after defeating her Trump-endorsed competition, then-Rep. Mo Brooks, in the Republican primary.
  • First Lady Jill Biden is scheduled to travel to Atlanta on Friday to launch “Women for Biden,” a coalition of women voters assembled to support her husband’s reelection bid.

Nikki Haley’s Last Stand?

Former U.N. Ambassador and Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaks during a campaign event on February 29, 2024, in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Former U.N. Ambassador and Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaks during a campaign event on February 29, 2024, in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

RICHMOND, Virginia—Nikki Haley had little time for niceties. As she strode onto the stage around lunchtime Thursday, the former South Carolina governor briefly thanked the crowd before launching, without transition, into a dire warning about the state of the country and the world.

“You know you don’t have to look at the news to know how tough things are right now,” Haley said to a crowd of about 500 gathered in a hotel ballroom here in Virginia’s capital city. “It’s pretty bad. We’re $34 trillion in debt. We’re having to borrow money just to make our interest payments. China owns some of that debt. And for the first time, we’re paying more in our interest payments than we are in our defense budget. You know who pays attention to that? Russia, China, and Iran.”

The audience of around 500 voters—a well-heeled Republican crowd with plenty of quarter-zip vests and chic women’s blazers—all nodded in agreement. This was the kind of sober, serious summation of the nation’s problems many had come to hear. Efficient too: The one-time ambassador to the United Nations wrapped up her remarks in just over half an hour, though she spent just as much time afterward shaking hands and taking photos with voters.

If Haley is campaigning as if she’s running out of time, it’s because she is. March 5 is Super Tuesday, when 15 states will hold their presidential primaries. Her stop in Virginia, including a Thursday night event in Fairfax County in the Washington suburbs, is the middle leg of a nationwide swing of appearances in several Super Tuesday states. Haley has already been to Colorado and Utah this week, and she will campaign in North Carolina, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, and Texas in the days ahead.

This may be the last stand for the last remaining Republican challenger to Donald Trump, who is likely to become the presumptive nominee soon after Super Tuesday, when most of the remaining states will award all their delegates to the winner of their state’s primary or caucus. The multi-state blitz could be Haley’s final opportunity to make a case against nominating Trump in front of actual Republican primary voters.

“We also need to acknowledge that all we have done under Donald Trump is lose. We lost in 2018. We lost in 2020. We lost in 2022,” Haley said Thursday. “Everything Donald Trump does, we lose. And at some point, maybe we need to say maybe Donald Trump is the problem.”

Haley tends to sprinkle her stump speech with applause lines and bits of light humor, and occasionally her crowds will break out into “Nikki!” or “Haley!” chants—including when one lone attendee, who took issue with Haley’s assertion that Trump was siding with Putin, loudly yelled from the back of the room that she was lying. People in the crowd listen intently to her words. For many of them, she continues to offer reassurance that Trump isn’t the only answer for what it means to be a Republican. 

“I think she’s offering a different perspective by being still in it,” Amelia Johnson, from Prince George, told Dispatch Politics.

Tom Linton of Richmond remained hopeful. “The center of the party is bigger than most people think,” he told Dispatch Politics. “Historically, the center holds. That’s where the party has the most success. You know, the extremes never really seem to win. But the center does.”

Here’s the problem for Haley: What Linton described as the “center” of the GOP, which in the last few decades reached its apex by nominating Mitt Romney in 2012, has ceded all its decision-driving power to Trump and the MAGA movement. That’s put these Republicans on the outside looking in, grudgingly going along with Trump through two successive presidential elections. After eight years of Trump, a Haley campaign stop is liberating—a countercultural event within an otherwise monolithic GOP. 

In Richmond, several attendees wore Haley-branded T-shirts with cheekily defiant slogans. “Underestimate me: That’ll be fun,” read one. “Barred. Permanently,” read another, a reference to a recent Trump social media warning that donors to Haley’s campaign will be “permanently barred from the MAGA camp.”

“When you’re running for president, you’re trying to bring people into your fold,” Haley said. “You don’t push people out of your club.”

Yet most of the Haley voters who spoke to Dispatch Politics in Richmond seemed inclined to vote for Trump in November if he is the nominee. Despite the messages of exclusion from Trump himself, they still consider themselves part of the party. But standing athwart the Trumpian tide these days can make some Republicans feel isolated. As she approaches an almost certain defeat in most, if not all, of the Super Tuesday states, Haley is providing GOP voters like Ethan Haswell of Richmond with a new sense of belonging.

“If I can just go out and put a body in a room and have someone see hopefully a slightly more packed room for someone else, then yeah, that’s like a thing that’s worth a little bit,” Haswell said. “It’s a message-sending exercise.”

The Senate’s Changing of the Guard

In November, Mitch McConnell will step down as the No. 1 ranking Republican in the U.S. Senate after nearly two decades at the helm. His retirement will trigger a competitive and uncertain race to succeed him, while also raising more questions about the ideological direction of the GOP.

McConnell, 82, announced Wednesday he would not run for another term as Republican leader in November, triggering the first open race for the post since the Kentucky senator won it immediately following the 2006 elections. Speculation about his potential successor immediately revolved around three veteran Republicans commonly referred to as the “three Johns.”

They include 71-year-old Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, appointed to fill a vacancy in June 2007 and now, as the Republican conference chairman, the chamber’s third-ranking GOP member; 72-year-old Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, first elected in 2002 and a former McConnell deputy who made his leadership bid official on Thursday; and 63-year-old Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, first elected in 2004 and now, as the Republican whip, the second-ranking Republican in the chamber. 

“Thune is trying to reassemble the hardcore McConnell coalition, and that is the fastest way to 20,” said a Republican strategist with relationships in the Senate, who, like the roughly one dozen GOP operatives in Washington Dispatch Politics queried, requested anonymity to speak candidly.

But 20 votes for leader, while a solid base of support, is unlikely to constitute a majority of the Republican conference, even under the rosiest of 2024 scenarios for the Democrats and their bid to retain or expand their 51-seat caucus. And, depending upon the outcome of the race for Senate control—and the 2024 presidential race—this contest of heavyweights between Barrasso, Cornyn, and Thune could be upended by a dark horse contender. 

Sen. Steve Daines of Montana—chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP campaign arm—is most often mentioned as the possible next leader in this context. Daines, 61, has cultivated close ties to former President Donald Trump, the likely Republican nominee, and might command the loyalty of any newly elected GOP senators, who could number more than a half-dozen if his party is successful on November 5.  

And what if Senate Republicans are looking for a member of the party’s younger generation? Keep your eye on 46-year-old Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a McConnell protégé but one who has maintained warm relations with Trump. On this front, Politico’s Burgess Everett reported that Republicans also are monitoring 52-year-old Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. 

“I would keep an eye on Daines as a possible outsider that could emerge,” a dialed-in Republican lobbyist said. “Of the Johns, a lot of people seem to like Barrasso, but I know that behind the scenes, McConnell has been grooming and trying to help Thune.” 

“I think the outcome of the election could have a lot to do with who emerges,” this lobbyist added. “If Trump wins, it’s probably a tougher path for Thune, but I would not count him out. If Daines delivers a Senate majority for Trump, he could be the candidate that nobody’s thinking about right now.”  

By the time Addison Mitchell McConnell III relinquishes power in November, he’ll have served at the top for 18 years, making him the longest-serving Senate leader in history. For most of that tenure, his grip on the Republican conference went unchallenged—both as majority leader and minority leader. McConnell was reelected to the post seven times without opposition; he only faced a challenger during his first race in 2006 and what turned out to be his final race in 2022, when he easily defeated Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, who might also be plotting another leadership bid.

But more than just a changing of the Senate leadership guard, McConnell’s departure stands to have far-reaching implications for the sorts of policies the GOP pushes on Capitol Hill. 

The Republican Party, as shaped by Trump over nearly a decade, has grown more populist. During that period, McConnell has been among the few Republicans in Congress with the fortitude and institutional power to resist these changes in favor of a traditional, Ronald Reagan-era approach to domestic and foreign policy issues—and keep his seat at the leadership table.

But once McConnell is out of leadership, it’s unclear whether his successor will be able to fill his shoes in this regard. Even McConnell has faltered lately. Senate Republicans, including close McConnell allies, rebuffed him on proposals to fund Ukraine and compromise with President Joe Biden on border security measures. Once the Kentuckian is fully out the door,  Trump-aligned populist figures will have a freer hand to dispense with traditional conservative policy and pursue populist causes.

“November’s a long time away. We need new leadership now. Leadership that is going to prioritize the American people over defense contractors, that’s going to prioritize our border over foreign wars,” Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, told a St. Louis television station. “We have got to turn the page in this party in the United States. This is a good first step, but we need new leadership. We need more of it, and we need it quick.”

McConnell told the Associated Press he plans to remain in office through the end of his seventh Senate term, which expires in early 2027.

Notable and Quotable

“It’s probably the worst border—not probably. It’s the worst border in the history of the world.”

—Former President Donald Trump, speaking to Fox News host Sean Hannity during his visit to the southern border near Eagle Pass, Texas, on February 29, 2024

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.

Michael Warren is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was an on-air reporter at CNN and a senior writer at the Weekly Standard. When Mike is not reporting, writing, editing, and podcasting, he is probably spending time with his wife and three sons.