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Nikki Haley Tries a Non-Trump Middle Road
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Nikki Haley Tries a Non-Trump Middle Road

Plus: Another Ramaswamy flip-flop, and The Dispatch has receipts.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley speaks during the Republican Party of Iowa 2023 Lincoln Dinner at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa, on July 28, 2023. (Photo by Rebecca S. Gratz for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Happy Monday! An 83-year-old former House speaker is running for reelection, in part to help the 80-year-old president of her party defeat the 78-year-old former president among whose top elected leaders in Washington is the 81-year-old Senate minority leader.

Up to Speed

  • Former President Donald Trump had a message for failed 2022 Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters of Arizona: He can’t win a Senate GOP primary this cycle. The New York Times reports Trump called Masters last week to warn him off running against another possible candidate, failed 2022 Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake. Both Republicans are considering running for Democrat-turned-independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s seat in 2024.
  • Pressed repeatedly about the White House’s abortion stance during an extended interview with CBS News’ Face the Nation on Sunday, Vice President Kamala Harris declined to say where Democrats should draw the line on abortion restrictions, repeating several times to multiple questions that Democrats “need to restore the protections of Roe v. Wade.”
  • As they return to Washington this week after their August recess, the rightmost flank of the House Republican conference is threatening to extract concessions from Speaker Kevin McCarthy amid Congress’ ongoing spending fight. Government funding is set to expire October 1. “In this spending fight, we can & absolutely must force: A secure border; An end to the weaponization of the DOJ & FBI; An eradication of woke policies from our military. And let’s not forget ripping up the blank check to Ukraine,” GOP Rep. Eli Crane, one of the roughly twenty House Republicans to initially hold up McCarthy’s January speakership bid in January, wrote in a social media post earlier this month. 

How Haley Plans to Separate From the Pack and Take on Trump

Nikki Haley is attempting to cut a path to the Republican nomination that neither embraces nor rejects frontrunner Donald Trump and the conservative populism that has dominated the GOP since the former president won the White House nearly seven years ago.

The strategy puts Haley, the former South Carolina governor, smack in the middle of an intramural battle for the direction of the party unfolding between fellow underdogs Mike Pence and Vivek Ramaswamy, with the former vice president pleading for the traditional conservatism that governed the GOP for a 40-year period ushered in by Ronald Reagan and the wealthy biotech entrepreneur essentially arguing Trumpism is the future. It’s exactly where the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations wants to be.

“Nikki is a bold, new conservative leader,” Haley campaign spokeswoman Olivia Perez-Cubas tells The Dispatch. “She is the only candidate with the backbone and vision to lead both the Republican Party and the country forward.”

The quote sounds canned and dodgy. But it’s nonetheless revealing.  

The Haley campaign is deliberately declining to engage in the intraparty dispute over which shade of conservatism—the Reagan kind or the Trump kind—is preferable, while borrowing a little from each. Haley also is pointedly refusing to get caught up in a debate over the former president and his myriad foibles. Her approach is to shun sycophancy by criticizing Trump on key issues of disagreement (government spending, foreign policy, and national security being the most common) but to avoid being defined as a dedicated Trump critic. 

In doing so, the Haley campaign believes she is distinguishing herself as commander-in-chief material from the range of contenders vying to become the consensus alternative to the former president. That includes not just Pence and Ramaswamy, but also Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. It’s a strategy to build a coalition (albeit slowly) on track to carry her to victory in the GOP primary.

“Some run as ‘Trump-lite,’ while others throw rocks at Trump to win points in the media,” Haley campaign manager Betsy Ankney wrote in a September 5 memorandum. “All are wrong, all will fail and all show a lack of leadership.”

Trump is lapping the primary field in public and private opinion polling, nationally and in key early primary states. In other words, the efficacy of Haley’s strategy is, to say the least, unclear. But her campaign believes it has begun to pay substantial dividends, in no small part thanks to a performance in the first Republican debate in Milwaukee that GOP voters lauded in surveys and focus groups. 

Haley advisers say the campaign registered nearly 20,000 new unique grassroots contributors in the two weeks following the August 23 Fox News telecast and that 66 percent of its post-debate donors gave to the campaign for the first time. Coalition signups from groups of veterans to women supporting Haley jumped 60 percent, as did people signing up to participate in, or receive information about, the campaign generally (1,704 percent.) Haley also picked up support from major donors.

Ultimately, Haley’s campaign strategy rests on what political operatives often refer to as athleticism. 

Some candidates are likable; rhetorically quick on their feet; effective at volleying criticism; unbowed by pressure from the media; a good fit for the moment; present as strong leaders and authentic—or seemingly so. Some are not. Haley, 51, has exhibited all of those necessary qualities at different times throughout a meteoric rise that saw her advance from unknown state legislator to governor to an ambassador in Trump’s cabinet. 

It’s another story completely, however, whether Haley can withstand the heat from her old boss, and the Democrats, that would materialize if she endangers Trump like DeSantis did earlier this year—heat that would surely spotlight her jettisoned commitment not to seek the White House in 2024 if the 45th president ran. But the Haley campaign is convinced no other Republican candidate has the mix of skill and strategy to get in a position to do so.

“She is tough and honest, while still being respectful,” a Haley adviser says. “That’s how leaders lead.”

Vivek’s Task Force Tap Dance

More than three years after he identified himself in an op-ed for The Dispatch as a member of “Ohio’s coronavirus task force” in July 2020, Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy is now downplaying that panel and his participation on it. 

“The fact of the matter is the Ohio COVID-19 response team wasn’t actually ever a formally titled body,” Ramaswamy told conservative political commentator Glenn Beck in a recent interview. “There was a lieutenant governor in Ohio who remains a friend of mine to this day, who asked me if he could call me from time to time to get basic advice through the process. I said, sure, I would. I helped him with the reopening plan. That was a short version of the help that I provided him. So I’m actually proud of that.” 

But after his piece was published on July 14, 2020, Ramaswamy wrote an email to The Dispatch: “I didn’t yet have a chance to get back to you with a bio line, but can you kindly update the link to include this one? ‘Vivek Ramaswamy is an entrepreneur and writer in the biotechnology sector. He serves on Ohio’s coronavirus task force and on the board of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity. His book Woke, Inc. is forthcoming next year.’” 

Asked for comment, Ramaswamy spokeswoman Tricia McLaughlin says: “Where was the contradiction?”

Ramaswamy faced scrutiny earlier this year for reportedly paying someone to scrub his Wikipedia page of his public association with the task force in addition to other changes. When asked whether Ramaswamy paid someone to remove the reference to his involvement on the task force, McLaughlin responds, “All we did was put in accurate information.”

Kristi Noem Endorses Trump, Stokes VP Speculation

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem endorsed former President Donald Trump’s 2024 bid during a rally in Rapid City, South Dakota, stoking ongoing speculation that the Republican presidential frontrunner will tap her to serve as his running mate.

“I get endorsements, some good, some bad,” Trump said onstage next to Noem. “Some don’t mean anything. Hers means a lot.”

Noem, a high-profile governor who earlier this year teased a 2024 presidential run of her own, has said in recent television interviews that she’d “absolutely” consider serving as Trump’s running mate if the opportunity arose.

But she faces tough behind-the-scenes competition for that role. Other potential vice presidential picks include House GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik and failed 2022 Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake of Arizona. 

“I talk to President Trump all the time,” Lake told The Dispatch in Milwaukee last month. “We don’t talk about VP. We talk about how we can get America back on track. And any way I can help him, I will.” Lake suggested a request from Trump to serve as his running mate would likely change her calculus on running for the Senate in Arizona next year: “Anything he asks me to do, I will do,” she added.

Trump has even suggested that he may pick one of his presidential primary opponents, posting on his Truth Social social media platform ahead of last month’s first Republican presidential debate: “Let them debate so I can see who I MIGHT consider for Vice President!” 

The former president is playing down speculation that he’ll settle on a running mate anytime soon. “I think I’ll go through the process,” Trump told conservative radio show host Hugh Hewitt last week. “You know this probably better than anybody, but there’s never been a vice president that got a president elected, because it doesn’t work that way. It sounds good and everything, but the president gets himself elected.”

But a bad running mate can hurt. Speculation surrounding Trump’s vice presidential decision-making process coincides with increased focus on Vice President Kamala Harris, who has struggled to define her legacy while in the White House, is prone to making gaffes in interviews, and boasts a 39 percent approval rating in FiveThirtyEight’s national polling average. Intense media scrutiny of Harris is expected to balloon over the next year as Biden, now 80, faces questions about his age.

Notable and Quotable

“Many voters think [‘pro-life’] means you’re for no exceptions in favor of abortion ever, ever, and ‘pro-choice’ now can mean any number of things. … So if you’re going to talk about the issue, you need to be specific.”

—GOP Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri speaking with NBC News, September 7, 2023

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.