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Nikki Haley Reopens the ‘Kill Marco’ Playbook
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Nikki Haley Reopens the ‘Kill Marco’ Playbook

Plus: Is Trump’s candidacy warping GOP Senate recruitment?

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaks at a town hall event in New Hampshire on April 26, 2023. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Happy Friday! Several of your Dispatch Politics correspondents are headed to Iowa this weekend. If you happen to be a Hawkeye State elected official, party chair, or other assorted political-class hanger-on—or if you just want to talk about Caitlyn Clark—hit us up!

Up to Speed

  • Title 42, the pandemic-era policy that expedited the expulsion of illegal migrants at the border and suspended most asylum claims since its implementation by President Trump in 2020, officially ended at midnight Thursday. The change is expected to provoke a still larger surge of border crossings, which were already at record levels. On Wednesday, the Biden administration finalized a rule blocking most migrants from applying for asylum if they did not first seek asylum in a country they passed through en route to America.
  • Former President Donald Trump appeared on a primetime CNN town hall Wednesday night. During the hourlong event before a sympathetic crowd, he repeated his longstanding lies about the legitimacy of the 2020 election, mocked the woman who this week won a civil case after Trump was found liable of sexually abusing her, and pledged to pardon “a large portion” of those who have faced charges for participating in the January 6 capitol riot. Trump also declined to say whether he would sign a national abortion ban if reelected president.
  • President Joe Biden and congressional leaders postponed a Friday meeting to discuss the upcoming debt-ceiling crisis until early next week. Although Biden has long insisted—and continues to suggest—that he will not dignify Republican brinkmanship over the debt ceiling by negotiating the issue, Reuters reported Thursday that “aides from both sides have started to discuss ways to limit federal spending.”
  • House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said Wednesday he will not support the reelection effort of Rep. George Santos, who was indicted Tuesday on 13 federal charges of wire fraud, money laundering, and stealing public funds. “Santos has a lot going on,” McCarthy told reporters. “I think he has other things to focus on in his life than running for stuff.” His well-documented serial fabulism in practically every aspect of his life notwithstanding, Santos is pleading not guilty.

Nikki Haley’s 2016 Redux

Since announcing for president in February, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has treaded cautiously around Donald Trump. But she has plenty to say about Ron DeSantis.

Haley has repeatedly needled the Florida governor over his ongoing feud with Disney, saying the entertainment conglomerate should consider moving its massive Disney World theme park complex to South Carolina. The former ambassador has suggested the fracas showed DeSantis’s “thin skin,” pointing out the governor formerly accepted campaign contributions from Disney. Meanwhile, Haley’s designated super PAC, SFA Inc., has since February devoted more than a dozen press releases to tearing down DeSantis.

Many observers report a sense of déjà vu. In 2016, most GOP contenders declined to take on Trump, the undisputed frontrunner. Instead, they aimed fire at a young, dynamic establishment favorite from Florida, Sen. Marco Rubio, in a bid to set up a tête-à-tête with the future 45th president. 

You may recall how that turned out. But eight years later, Haley is giving it another try, deploying the much-derided “kill Marco” gameplan against DeSantis. 

Haley would be well-positioned to draw a favorable contrast between herself and Trump along multiple lines: Young versus old; woman versus man; future-oriented versus backward-looking. She has offered the occasional guarded criticism, calling for cognitive tests for candidates and politicians aged 75 and older—Trump turns 77 in June—and arguing the GOP needs new leaders capable of winning national elections. Back in April, her campaign sent a memorandum to donors accusing the former president of being “more consumed by the grievances of the past,” adding he promises “more drama in the future, rather than a forward-looking vision for the American people.”

Yet as a rule, Haley treats Trump with kid gloves. This week, she explicitly declined to say anything negative about the former president after a federal jury, in a civil case in New York City, determined he “sexually abused” plaintiff E. Jean Carroll years ago and later defamed her. “I mean, I’m not going to get into that. That’s something for Trump to respond to,” she told conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt. Haley also kept silent after the 45th president’s Wednesday evening town hall on CNN. 

While Haley dips into the “kill Marco” playbook, one of its primary practitioners is now taking a different approach. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, himself mulling a 2024 run, is constantly haranguing Trump, most recently laying into him for his vacillating responses during Wednesday’s event about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “Donald Trump refused to say tonight that he wanted Ukraine to win the war with Russia,” Christie tweeted. “More proof that he continues to be Putin’s puppet.”

Never Back Down, the super PAC backing DeSantis’ presumed presidential campaign, also unloaded on Trump after the CNN town hall with a series of statements and tweets.

So far, Never Back Down has focused almost exclusively on Trump with television spots and other forms of advertising—although the group occasionally responds to attacks from Haley. Asked to comment on Haley’s focus on DeSantis, a spokeswoman for Never Back Down instead turned the spotlight back on the former president, an acknowledgement that the contest for the nomination runs through, not around, the frontrunner.

“We aren’t afraid to set the record straight and push back on false attacks from potential opponents who are scared of facing the governor should he jump in the race,” Erin Perrine said.

The Haley campaign declined to comment.

The Club for Growth Talks Trump, Senate Candidate Recruitment

David McIntosh, president of the anti-tax Club for Growth, took another shot at Donald Trump this week, suggesting in an interview with The Dispatch that the former president’s decision to seek the Republican nomination again in 2024 is causing prospective GOP candidates to second guess whether to run for competitive Senate seats this cycle.  

“I think a lot of people are trying to calculate: Will Trump be the nominee and will that drag me down if I’m in a hard race?” McIntosh said in a Wednesday interview in the organization’s D.C. headquarters. 

The advocacy group’s super PAC arm, Club for Growth Action, is a frequent combatant in Republican party infighting, often elevating rough-and-tumble candidates in congressional primaries and clashing with GOP leadership-aligned spending groups along the way. The group spent $38 million in Republican Senate primaries during the 2022 cycle alone, according to spokesman Joe Kildea.

But the Club has taken special aim in recent months at Trump, arguing in op-eds, ads, internal polls, and searing public statements that the leading Republican presidential candidate’s electoral losing streak in 2018, 2020, and 2022 presages serious challenges for the GOP up and down the ballot next year. 

“If he gets the nomination we’ll help him try to win,” McIntosh said of Trump in early February. “But the last three elections show that he’s lost.”

That’s certainly the case in ultra-competitive Senate battlegrounds like Wisconsin, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Michigan—perennially purple states Trump carried in 2016 and lost four years later. But McIntosh’s Trump antagonism may prove to be a trickier electoral bet in Ohio, Montana, and West Virginia—three Democrat-held targets this cycle that Trump carried in 2020 by eight, 16, and 39 points, respectively, and where the Club for Growth has already said it plans to invest heavily on behalf of economically conservative candidates.

Take West Virginia’s Republican Senate primary, where the Club is backing GOP Rep. Alex Mooney. To make it through the primary, Mooney will have to overcome Gov. Jim Justice, who is backed by two deep-pocketed D.C. spending groups, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Mitch McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund. Both Mooney and Justice are vying for Trump’s support. 

Conservative spending groups could also come to loggerheads in their efforts to oust three-term Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in Montana, home to GOP Sen. Steve Daines, who currently chairs the NRSC. Daines has notably endorsed Trump, and is publicly recruiting wealthy businessman and former Navy SEAL Tim Sheehy, a first-term candidate and former Daines donor with no voting record.

Meanwhile, the Club for Growth has signaled early interest in GOP Rep. Matt Rosendale, the GOP’s 2018 nominee who ended up losing to Tester by three and a half points. McIntosh told reporters back in February that if Rosendale decides to run in 2024, the group would want to support him again.

But even McIntosh concedes that Rosendale—a firebrand conservative who initially opposed Kevin McCarthy’s speakership bid in January—could struggle to get through another primary. “Daines really doesn’t want him to run,” McIntosh said of Rosendale, whose campaign team did not respond to a press inquiry. “I think Matt’s testing the waters to see if he can do the fundraising. We supported him last time and he’d make a great Senator.”

Rosendale’s first quarter fundraising numbers don’t suggest the campaign apparatus of someone who’s laying the groundwork for a statewide run. During the three-month period ending on March 31,  Rosendale raised roughly $127,000 and spent $144,000 compared to Tester, who raised $5 million and spent $869,000 in the same timeframe.

A spokesman for the NRSC declined to comment. 

Not all 2024 Senate races are shaping up to have messy primaries. The Club for Growth, NRSC, and SLF are aligned in backing incumbent Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, as well as Rep. Jim Banks for retiring Indiana Sen. Mike Braun’s seat.

The Club also expressed an openness toward prospective 2024 Senate candidate Dave McCormick in Pennsylvania, a former hedge fund CEO and George W. Bush Treasury official who lost the Keystone State’s Senate GOP primary last cycle to television personality Dr. Mehmet Oz. Neither McCormick nor likely candidate Doug Mastriano, the state senator and 2022 gubernatorial nominee who lost last year’s governor’s race by 14 points last cycle to Democrat Josh Shapiro, have announced Senate campaigns. 

“We’re gonna watch and see,” McIntosh said of Pennsylvania’s Senate race. “If McCormick decides to run, I think he’d be the strongest candidate.”

Eyes on the Trail

  • Follow the Leader. Tucker Carlson is slated to interview Republican presidential contenders in mid-July when he headlines Family Leadership Summit ’23 in Des Moines, Iowa. The annual conference of the influential conservative group, the Family Leader, might not attract every presidential hopeful but it’s typically a big draw ahead of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation nominating caucuses. Carlson, recently fired by Fox News despite hosting the network’s highest-rated prime time program, is set to relaunch his show on Twitter. The commentator has cultivated a committed following that reaches from rank-and-file conservative Fox-viewers to the radical edge of the populist right, and his nationalist views would likely inform his questions for candidates at the summer event. As for Carlson entering the 2024 sweepstakes himself? “I would say before being fired from Fox, absolutely not,” Family Leader president and CEO Bob Vander Plaats told The Dispatch. “Does that change now? I don’t know.”   

Notable and Quotable

“So many things were lost during the Civil Rights Movement. So many freedoms were lost during the Civil Rights Movement. They shouldn’t have been lost.” 

—North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson in a 2018 podcast recently unearthed by CNN

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.