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Launch Week for Nikki Haley
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Launch Week for Nikki Haley

Plus: Donald Trump’s one-way war against Ron DeSantis.

Nikki Haley on "Hannity" at Fox News Channel Studios on January 20. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

Happy Monday! The refs did nothing wrong.

Up to Speed

  • Former Arizona GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake traveled to Iowa over the weekend, raising speculation about her political ambitions. The Trump-aligned former newscaster lost narrowly to Democrat Katie Hobbs in November but continues to baselessly insist her loss was fraudulent. Lake hasn’t ruled out a 2024 U.S. Senate bid in Arizona, but she signaled she’s open to serving as Trump’s vice presidential pick if he wins the nomination. “If he wants me to help him in any way, shape or form, I will do that. I will campaign for him,” she said in an interview with the Des Moines Register. “I’ll do whatever I need to. But I’m not running for VP. I’m not running for president. I am just running to save America, if there’s such a thing.”
  • Michigan businessman and failed Republican gubernatorial candidate Perry Johnson said Thursday that he filed paperwork to create a “candidate committee to consider a run for President of the United States.” He aired $192,000 in Super Bowl ads across Iowa media markets on Sunday criticizing Democrats in Washington for “bloated government” and promoting his book Two Cents to Save America. Those ads will hit New Hampshire next. “Johnson is set to open a campaign office in Des Moines in the coming weeks, with visits to both Iowa and New Hampshire planned before the end of March,” reads a Sunday press release.
  • Will New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu enter the presidential race too? NBC News first reported last week that Sununu has formed a new national political organization, Live Free or Die, to fund political travel and related activities as he mulls the prospect. “There’s no doubt I could do the job,” Sununu told The Dispatch over the weekend. “But it has to be right for me and the party and the family and all that kind of stuff. And we’ll kind of see where it takes us.”

Haley Campaign Thin on the Ground in Iowa and New Hampshire

Nikki Haley takes her place in the presidential spotlight this week. The former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador will head to New Hampshire for two days of campaigning, followed by more of the same in Iowa, after announcing her 2024 bid Wednesday with a late morning rally in Charleston, South Carolina. All three are key early states: The Iowa caucuses next February will kick off the Republican presidential nominating contest, followed by New Hampshire, host of the first traditional primary, then South Carolina, first in the heavily Republican South.

But so far, the soon-to-be-official Haley presidential campaign has no staff or advisers—paid or pro bono—in Iowa or New Hampshire. At least that’s the best The Dispatch could figure out after lobbing several calls into each state to ask dialed-in Republican insiders if they know who is  helping Haley organize events. “I think they are cobbling it together with people they have on the team that have worked in New Hampshire,” a veteran Republican operative in the state said.

Since leaving the Trump administration and launching her own political operation, Haley has been a sought-after surrogate and popular on the fundraising circuit. She regularly draws hundreds of activists and donors at party dinners and other events for endorsed candidates. But Haley’s apparent decision to put staff at campaign headquarters in Charleston in charge of organizing her rallies and town hall meetings in Iowa and New Hampshire has raised eyebrows.

An Iowa Republican operative sent us a picture of approximately 100 people who packed a room Saturday in suburban Des Moines to see Arizona’s Kari Lake. “The crowd bar has been set for Haley and other candidates,” this party insider said. Haley is scheduled to host two town hall meetings at small businesses in Iowa the week of February 21: one near Des Moines, the other near Cedar Rapids.

Although no comparative “crowd bar” has been set in New Hampshire, Haley’s decision to host a town hall meeting in Exeter does carry some risks, according to one veteran Republican operative in the state.

“It’s a great, historic venue; every candidate does it. They’ll need a solid 150-200 people to make that feel and look good, however,” said this Republican, who has advised presidential candidates. “You don’t do the Exeter Town Hall with a dozen people. It would be a disastrous optic.”

Haley’s Granite State itinerary includes the Exeter town hall meeting on Thursday and an appearance at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, on the campus of St. Anselm College in Manchester, on Friday. Haley’s political team declined to comment.

Trump’s Early Scorched-Earth Anti-DeSantis Campaign

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis isn’t likely to jump into the 2024 presidential race for months, but he may find a ready-made path to early grassroots infrastructure when he does. Over the weekend, David reported on the rapid proliferation of the group Moms for Liberty, a Florida-based parental-rights and education-policy group that has launched dozens of locally run chapters since its founding in 2021, including in the key early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

“I think the chapters are going to be naturally receptive to [DeSantis] because he stood up for parents during COVID,” Moms for Liberty founder Tiffany Justice told The Dispatch. Added Iowa-based GOP consultant Luke Martz: “Whoever DeSantis hires should absolutely try and co-opt this group.”

This sort of pre-campaign jockeying underscores the odd and disjointed nature of the 2024 GOP primary so far. Plenty of candidates are gearing up, but there’s no question the two candidates with the most momentum are DeSantis and former President Donald Trump. While DeSantis studiously ignores the presidential race—he’s got a spring legislative session to get through first—the rest of the political world is already roaring ahead.

Certainly Trump is operating as though he is already in a head-to-head contest with DeSantis. He has treated other potential challengers—including Haley and his former Vice President Mike Pence—with almost patronizing indifference. Not so for “Ron DeSanctimonious.”

In going after DeSantis, Trump has returned to the kitchen-sink attack playbook he refined over the past decade—pummeling DeSantis on every possible charge he can think of, caring little about blowback and even less about the accuracy of his attacks. On his Truth Social platform, Trump has lambasted DeSantis as a “RINO GLOBALIST,” insinuated he’s allied with lawyers connected to supposed 2020 voter fraud, and—most explosively—accused him of “grooming high school girls with alcohol” when he taught high school for a year in the early 2000s. (Two former students of DeSantis told the New York Times last November that DeSantis had attended several senior parties after graduation that year at which alcohol was served; DeSantis has not commented on the subject. No one has accused DeSantis of any related misconduct.)

Such bare-knuckle tactics often paid dividends for Trump—but it remains to be seen how GOP voters will respond to them when they’re deployed against a candidate so many of them have come to like. DeSantis’s brand soared among Republicans during the COVID pandemic, when he was seen as the archetypal governor standing for citizens’ individual liberties in the face of recommendations from national organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and, later, Joe Biden’s administration.

Trump has tried to attack DeSantis on these grounds, too—arguing that the governor’s record during the pandemic was less pro-liberty than he makes it out to be today. “Florida was actually closed, for a great long period of time,” he told reporters last month. “Remember, he closed the beaches and everything else? They’re trying to rewrite history.”

DeSantis’ Florida—like nearly every state in the union—followed the federal government’s guidance to close most public spaces to the public in March 2020. But DeSantis, along with some other Republican governors like Brian Kemp in Georgia, actually came around to reopening things faster than Trump himself did, growing more skeptical of shutdowns by summer and reopening schools and restaurants in the fall.

“I think DeSantis could dismantle Trump’s leadership on COVID,” Iowa GOP strategist David Kochel told The Dispatch. “I just don’t think voters will believe Trump on this. The left hit DeSantis so hard on his opening of beaches, restaurants, schools and the rest, and he positioned himself as the pro-freedom, anti-mandate champion. It just won’t work.”

For his part, DeSantis has determinedly avoided punching back. “I spend my time delivering results for the people of Florida and fighting against Joe Biden,” he told reporters last week. “I don’t spend my time trying to smear other Republicans.”

Current public polling of the prospective GOP field is all over the map, but most show Trump still leading DeSantis by double digits with a plurality of voter support. One Economist/YouGov poll released last week found the former president at 42 percent, DeSantis at 32, and the rest of the field splitting 19 percent. But should the field stay narrow—or should it narrow quickly once the nominating contests begin—DeSantis already matches up strongly against Trump in some head-to-head polling: A Monmouth poll released last week gave DeSantis a 53-40 edge over Trump.

Eyes on the Trail

  • Trump challengers hit the trail: Several likely 2024 Republican contenders have public events this week. Former Nikki Haley will officially launch her campaign at a South Carolina event Wednesday, then do an immediate New Hampshire leg. Her fellow South Carolina Republican, Sen. Tim Scott, is reportedly eyeing the field and will speak at a GOP county dinner in South Carolina Thursday. As David reported last week, Mike Pence is heading to Iowa on Wednesday for a pair of events keyed off a local legal fight between parents and a school district over its student gender-transition policies. And South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem will give three policy speeches in D.C. later in the week, including one on China policy to the Trump-friendly America First Policy Institute and one on her COVID-19 governance record to the libertarian Cato Institute. Both Noem and Pence will also address the Coolidge Foundation this week.
  • New Hampshire stays First: Recently approved presidential nominating calendar changes at the Democratic National Committee notwithstanding, New Hampshire is determined not to budge its first-in-the-nation primary, GOP Gov. Chris Sununu confirmed to The Dispatch over the weekend. “ It doesn’t matter what the Democrat Party says, it matters what New Hampshire says, and we’re going first. They might try to penalize you with delegates or sanctions—nobody cares,” Sununu said Saturday afternoon during an interview in Washington. New Hampshire Democrats, he added, are “very grateful that me and the secretary of state are cleaning up their mess and making sure that this is going to go first no matter what.”
  • Foreign policy watch: As the 2024 contest heats up, we’ll keep tabs on the policy groups that are advising the candidates. One group to watch is the Forum for American Leadership, a hawkish conservative foreign policy group that will brief candidates throughout the campaign on a number of national security issues, including the fentanyl crisis and the war in Ukraine. “The Forum for American Leadership has formed 14 working groups of senior conservative national security leaders that mirror the directorates of the National Security Council,” one source familiar with the matter told The Dispatch. “FAL and its working groups are beginning to brief potential candidates and will continue to produce policy papers throughout the 2024 campaign.” Here’s the group’s executive board.

Forward Party Taps Former Republican as New CEO

The Forward Party has hired former Republican operative Lindsey Williams Drath as chief executive officer as it moves to grow its national reach ahead of the 2024 elections, The Dispatch has learned.

Williams Drath spent two decades in GOP politics, raising money for dozens of gubernatorial and Senate contests across the country and serving in senior roles at the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and for now-Utah Sen. Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.

The Forward Party bills itself as a centrist alternative to the Democratic and Republican parties that is “bringing Democrats, Republicans and independents together to build a new kind of political party that represents the interests of the majority of Americans who reject extremism and division.” It is co-chaired by 2020 Democratic presidential contender Andrew Yang and Christine Todd Whitman, the former Republican governor of New Jersey.

“Lindsey is an experienced and principled leader who has dedicated her career to reforming and improving our politics,” Yang said. “She embodies the values that we hope to bring to communities around the country with Forward, and I couldn’t be more excited.”

Notable and Quotable

“If you lose, lose with dignity. You shake the other person’s hand and walk away. I didn’t lose, so I’m not doing that.” 

—Former Arizona GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, speaking to Iowa voters on Friday, February 13, 2023

Let Us Know

What do you make of the slowly growing Republican presidential field at this point in the cycle? Are you surprised more would-be candidates haven’t thrown their hat in the ring already?

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

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.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.