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Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis Finally Take On Trump
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Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis Finally Take On Trump

But is it too little, too late as Iowa and New Hampshire loom?

Happy Wednesday! Welcome to the year where it happens. Our New Year’s resolution: We’ve finally resigned ourselves to calling the old bird site “X.”

Up to Speed

  • Chris Christie lost a longtime New Hampshire booster this week after businessman Tom Boucher defected to Nikki Haley, as Politico’s Lisa Kashinsky flagged Tuesday. Veteran New Hampshire GOP operative Jim Merrill called the move a “big flip” for Haley in a post on X: “Where he leads publicly, it is reasonable to expect that others will soon follow.” Boucher is a loyal backer of New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who endorsed Haley in December.
  • Meanwhile, Christie is showing no signs of wilting under pressure from Sununu and other anti-Trump Republicans to end his presidential bid and allow for Haley to get a cleaner shot at Trump. If anything, the underdog former governor appears even more determined to stick around. “Some people say I should drop out of this race. Really? I’m the only one saying Donald Trump is a liar,” Christie says, looking straight to camera in a television advertisement that began airing last week. “What kind of president do we want? A liar or someone who has the guts to tell the truth? New Hampshire. It’s up to you.” The 30-second spot is one of two the Christie campaign is airing as part of a seven-figure ad buy in Granite State media markets. Trump continues to lead big in New Hampshire, though by a smaller margin than elsewhere.
  • The slim Republican majority in the House is shrinking more quickly than expected after Rep. Bill Johnson announced Tuesday he would resign later this month. The Ohio Republican, who is leaving Congress to become president of Youngstown State University, was previously expected to depart Congress in March. Johnson’s resignation, which comes on the heels of former speaker Kevin McCarthy’s last month, will cut the GOP majority to a margin of two seats.
  • New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez’s legal troubles deepened this week after prosecutors unveiled a second superseding indictment against him and his wife Nadine. Menendez, who was already facing multiple felony corruption charges over allegedly taking bribes to favor the Egyptian government while the powerful chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is now accused of making favorable comments supporting the government of Qatar in exchange for still more bribes.
  • Nikki Haley raised $24 million in the fourth quarter, entering this year with a $14.5 million war chest, her presidential campaign announced Wednesday morning. Haley’s haul in the final three months of 2023 more than doubled what she collected in two previous reporting periods since launching her 2024 bid on February 15. The fundraising spike comes on the eve of first votes in the January 15 Iowa caucus and January 23 New Hampshire primary, with some polls suggesting Haley could emerge as the consensus alternative to Donald Trump.

DeSantis and Haley Finally Come for the King

Presidential hopefuls Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis speak during the third Republican primary debate in Miami, Florida, on November 8, 2023. (Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
Presidential hopefuls Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis speak during the third Republican primary debate in Miami, Florida, on November 8, 2023. (Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

For second-tier Republican presidential contenders, 2023 was the year of dancing around open critiques of frontrunner Donald Trump—a strategy predicated on the belief that explicit attacks on the former president would be likelier to drive his voters back into his arms than to peel them away. But with Trump still miles ahead in every poll and mere weeks to go before Republicans start voting for real, both Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley are risking more open combat.

“I don’t think he’s the same candidate that he was in 2015, 2016,” DeSantis said last Friday at a campaign stop in Davenport, Iowa. “He’s lost the zip on his fastball. He’s promising a lot of the same things in ’23 and ’24 that he promised in ’16 and didn’t do. And so, you know, you’re gonna have to explain, why didn’t you build the wall? Why didn’t you fire Dr. Fauci? Why didn’t you do some of this stuff? And he’s not willing to do that.”

The Florida governor went on to call Trump “the best turnout operation for Democrats they’ve ever had” and said that Iowans “know I’m the guy that will actually follow through on all this. And I think that they see Trump as being a guy, in 2024, it’ll be all about these side issues, it’ll all be about a referendum on him.”

Meanwhile, Haley punched back at Trump Tuesday night at a country club event in New Hampshire, zeroing in on his recent (false) attacks against her over a supposed gas-tax increase while she was governor of South Carolina.

“I see the commercials that you see, and I’ve noticed that President Trump is giving me some attention,” Haley told the crowd. “In his commercials and in his temper tantrums, every single thing that he’s said has been a lie.”

“So if he’s gonna lie about me,” Haley went on, “I’m gonna tell you the truth about him.” 

On Tuesday, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations also went out of her way to attack Trump for his plan to skip the next televised debate, to be hosted by CNN in Iowa on January 10. “With only three candidates qualifying for the CNN debate, it’s time for Donald Trump to show up,” she said in a post on X. “As the debate stage continues to shrink, it’s getting harder for Donald Trump to hide.”

Neither candidate indulged in the sort of scorched-earth rhetoric about Trump you’d hear from, say, Chris Christie—or, for that matter, from Trump about either of them. (For Haley, “telling the truth” about Trump seems to amount mostly to reminding voters that he added trillions to the national debt.) Nor did DeSantis take the opportunity to bring up Trump’s yearlong barrage of personal attacks—some fair, some unfair, some truly deranged—on himself.

“I don’t take this stuff personally,” he told The Dispatch in a brief interview Friday. “I mean, when someone endorses someone else, I’m not gonna go out there and trash them—it’s just not how I roll. I think trashing someone like [Iowa governor] Kim Reynolds, like Trump has done, is a huge mistake. I think it’s a self-inflicted wound on his part to be doing that. It’s not the way you build the movement. So we’ll do it right, and we’ll be strong going into the fall.”

But the two candidates’ direct attacks on Trump were an apparent acknowledgment of a fact that has been clear to most outside observers for months: Going after the frontrunner might not work, but leaving his many vulnerabilities completely untouched certainly won’t.

There’s little question, however, that both Haley and DeSantis see catching Trump as more of a middle-term problem. The more pressing concern for each is still managing to outduel the other in the key early states of Iowa—where DeSantis maintains a slight edge over Haley—and New Hampshire, where Haley leads DeSantis by double digits.

In Iowa, DeSantis has been buoyed by key endorsements from Gov. Reynolds and Bob Vander Plaats, a prominent social conservative and caucus kingmaker by reputation. But Haley has allocated millions more in Iowa ad spending for the coming weeks and has increased her Iowa campaigning presence in recent weeks, threatening to retake ground crisscrossed all last year by the DeSantis campaign.

The two candidates’ paths will cross once more before the January 15 caucuses: They were the only two (besides Trump, who will not attend) to qualify for January 10’s CNN debate in Iowa. 

Handicapping the 2024 House

Yes, the presidential race is the marquee campaign of 2024, and we already gave you a nifty handicap of this year’s Senate races a couple months back. But we can’t forget the campaigns for the House of Representatives, which will be especially important if the new House ends up having to choose the president

The battle for control of the people’s house of Congress is likely to increasingly resemble trench warfare, where fewer and fewer swing districts will determine which party controls a narrow majority. Indeed, the current GOP majority will be down to just a two-seat margin at the end of this month, thanks to resignations and one successful expulsion.  

Nonetheless, former House speaker and GOP campaign guru Kevin McCarthy told us last month he predicts a net gain of 10 seats for Republicans this fall. So let’s kick the new year off with a quick look at why one Republican House strategist who spoke to Dispatch Politics this week feels upbeat about the GOP’s ability to retain and even grow their majority in the House. 

The Trump-district Democrats.

There aren’t many of them, but there are a few House Democrats who represent Republican-leaning districts, including places where Donald Trump won in 2020. The GOP wants them to vote for the House the same way they vote for president this year.

The most straightforward pick-up opportunity in this group is in Alaska’s at-large district. The state’s unconventional top-four ranked-choice voting system allowed Democrat Mary Peltola to benefit from the race’s two main Republican candidates, Sarah Palin and Nick Begich, splitting their party’s votes. Our GOP strategist says one of this year’s House candidates, sitting Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom, can better consolidate Republican support to beat Peltola.

The other four Trump-district Democrats Republicans are pinning their hopes on are: Jared Golden of Maine’s 2nd (which Trump won by 7 points in 2020); Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania’s 8th (Trump by 4); Marcy Kaptur of Ohio’s 9th (Trump by 3); and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez of Washington’s 3rd (Trump by 4). Republicans struggled in 2022 to win these races thanks to weak or toxic candidates. Our strategist source says the GOP is prepared to back better nominees this time against those resilient Democrats. And with Trump likely at the top of the ticket, Republican House candidates in these districts can hope for a little extra boost to get over the line.

The redistricting math.

While House redistricting from the 2020 Census was largely complete in time for the 2022 midterm elections, lawsuits over those new maps mean a handful of states will have even newer maps for the 2024 House elections. There are two states on our strategist source’s radar.

In North Carolina, where both parties currently have seven House members each, the battles over maps between Republicans and Democrats dragged on and even led to the U.S. Supreme Court weighing in. But late last year the state’s GOP-run legislature approved a final map that seems likely to shift three currently Democratic seats into solidly Republican districts and make one more fairly competitive. (One of the Democratic victims of this partisan gerrymandering, freshman Rep. Jeff Jackson, quickly announced he would run for state attorney general rather than reelection to the House.)

Republicans may not be as lucky in New York, where the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, is considering a lawsuit that could throw out the “new” congressional district map favored by Republicans. New York Republicans did better than expected in 2022, flipping four districts from blue to red and ensuring the GOP would have the majority—and because gerrymandering is a bipartisan disease, Democrats are looking to ditch the new map. 

Our GOP strategist says the “worst-case scenario” in New York is a return to the pre-2022 map, which would put as many as seven of the GOP’s 11 incumbents in toss-up districts and put one, Rep. Brandon Williams from central New York, in a difficult race for reelection. One bright spot for Republicans, though, is Long Island, where the GOP won four House races in 2022. The winning continued in local elections there in 2023, including a big victory in the race for Suffolk County executive over the incumbent Democrat. 

A bad environment for Democrats.

Republicans should be confident, says our strategist, because the environment looks worse for House Democrats in 2024 than it did in 2022 when the GOP won its narrow majority.

At the top, of course, is President Joe Biden’s poor approval rating. In a presidential election year, nothing may be more determinative of a House candidate’s performance than how the presidential nominee does. Republicans may have their own headaches with a problematic nominee, but Trump’s drawbacks may also be baked in.

“Trump is like the weather,” says the GOP strategist. “You check it in the morning, but at the end of the day, there’s nothing we can do about it.”

The issue set, from economic frustration to a migrant crisis at the southern border, also seems to favor Republicans—though whether these will be the driving issues 10 months from now is anyone’s guess. 

On top of these tough trends, Democrats are also losing much of the incumbency advantage in the seats they already have. A slew of House Democrats are retiring, and our source identified four from swing districts that the GOP will target heavily.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger is declining to run for reelection and will instead run for governor of Virginia in 2025; in Michigan, Rep. Dan Kildee is retiring from a Republican-trending district that he and his uncle, Dale Kildee, held in Democratic hands for nearly 50 years between them; elsewhere in Michigan, Rep. Elissa Slotkin is instead running for the Senate; and Rep. Katie Porter of California is also running for the Senate.

All four retiring Democrats have an “identifiable brand within the district,” said the GOP strategist. “But you take that off the table, there’s a pickup opportunity.”

Notable and Quotable 

“Most people are sheep when it comes to making endorsements, but Steve doesn’t do what he’s ‘supposed to.’ He votes his conscience and that’s why I respect him. Steve King was America First before it was cool. The likes of Steve King & Pat Buchanan were the OGs.”

—Vivek Ramaswamy in a statement accepting the presidential endorsement of former Iowa Rep. Steve King

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.

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.