Nikki Haley is poised to take a leap into the unknown next week when she becomes the first Republican to challenge former President Trump for the GOP’s 2024 nod.
It’s a role that few other Republicans are eager to fill, given Trump’s penchant for trying to humiliate any of his political opponents, real or perceived. But Haley’s allies say that she has a unique lane in a potentially crowded GOP primary field that could help her cut through the noise, especially at a time when many Republicans are wavering on Trump’s candidacy.
“Nikki’s had some tough races, and she’s used to running against the gold standard,” said Katon Dawson, a former chair of the South Carolina Republican Party who is backing Haley.
“There’s a lane in there for an anti-Trump. There’s a lane in there to be successful. And I think there’s a lane in there for Nikki Haley,” he added. “She’s always been able to deliver a message and raise the money to have it heard.”
Of course, she’s also likely to run into some stiff challenges. Trump still maintains a solid base of support within the party. And while he hasn’t jumped into the race yet, early polling shows Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) as the person best positioned to challenge the former president next year. Haley, meanwhile, is pulling only a fraction of their support.
The race could also eventually pit Haley against a fellow South Carolinian, Sen. Tim Scott (R), who is believed to be weighing a 2024 campaign of his own.
“I think Nikki Haley and Tim Scott will be vying for the same set of voters in a lot of ways,” said Danielle Vinson, a professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. “Both of them are less volatile than the Trump-DeSantis sort of candidates. They’re much more diplomatic, polite people — both of them.”
“I think they’d be competing primarily for those folks that were not happy with the drama of the Trump years that want to do something besides just fight culture wars,” she added.
But for now, at least, many Republican voters — and especially the party’s ultra-conservative base — are still showing a willingness to embrace Trump’s pugilistic style, even if they’re not as keen as they once were on the former president.
DeSantis, for instance, has built his national reputation by picking political fights with everyone from federal health officials to the media and Disney. One Republican strategist who is supporting Haley’s presidential bid conceded that it may be difficult for her to stand out in a GOP primary.
“She’s somebody that wants to study and understand an issue. She’s not really flashy like some of the others,” the strategist said. “And look, for me, I love that about her. But I still think there’s the question of how to break through when there are people like Trump and DeSantis sucking up all the oxygen in the room.”
But, that strategist added, “that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a lane in this thing.”
“I think that, look, there’s at least a contingency of the Republican Party that wants a clear voice and wants to see some generational change. I mean, between Trump and [President] Biden, we’ve just had two of the oldest presidents in history. So look, she’s smart, she’s talented. No one should write her off.”
Other Republicans floated Haley as a potential running mate for the eventual nominee, suggesting that her coming presidential bid could be a way for her to raise her profile.
“If she’s not trying to angle for a vice president slot, I don’t see a path with both Trump and DeSantis in the race,” Naughton said. “I just don’t get the sense that Haley — or anyone else for that matter — is really emerging as a real competitive force.”
Other Republicans push back against the notion she’s running for vice president, pointing to her running as the underdog in past races.
“She’s always been somebody in every race that she’s run, whether it was for statehouse or governor or even when she was made U.N. ambassador, people kind of second guessed and said this person doesn’t have a chance,” said Alex Stroman, former executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party. “I don’t think that Nikki Haley would want to get into the race if she truly wanted to sit around and become vice president.”
Haley is slated to make stops in the battleground states of Iowa and New Hampshire in the coming weeks.
“Once Nikki Haley really gets out there and starts running and is meeting with voters and those numbers start to change, I have no doubt that the former president will try and hit her, and hit her hard if he views her as a threat,” Stroman said.
But it may be DeSantis who has the most to lose from a Haley candidacy. A Yahoo News-YouGov survey released earlier this week showed that in a hypothetical three-way match-up between Haley, DeSantis and Trump, Haley could draw support away from the Florida governor and give Trump an edge.
According to the poll, Haley brings in 11 percent support from Republicans and Republican-leaners, while DeSantis comes in with 35 percent and Trump with 38 percent. Conversely, in a Trump-DeSantis match-up, the Florida governor leads the former president 45 percent to 41 percent.
“She has been very smart in the way that she’s navigating this to not alienate [Trump] or some of his supporters, of which there are many that are really diehard about him,” Stroman said, noting her work to maintain relationships with Trump and those in his orbit.
Other candidates’ expected entries into the race could further change the dynamic, and Trump has already begun to hit Haley, labeling her as “overly ambitious” last week.
At the moment, most attention appears to be on the brewing battle between Trump and DeSantis as the latter prepares his own presidential bid.
“From this viewpoint of the media, I think that the idea behind this Trump-DeSantis fight is much more appealing,” Stroman said.
Meanwhile, Haley will reintroduce herself to voters ahead of next year’s contests having last served as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations.
“She effectively has not been in a public position in some time,” Stroman said, adding that she will “remind voters of background and success at navigating and leading a state like South Carolina and her success at leading for America on the world stage.”
Haley, for her part, has signaled that she’s heading into her campaign with the intention of winning the nomination. In an interview with Fox News last month, Haley noted that she’s never lost an election and had no plans to do so now.
“I’ve never lost a race,” she said. “I said that then, I still say that now. I’m not going to lose now.”