Thursday, May 30, 2024

As Trump continues to trounce Haley, she presses on as MAGA antagonist

As Trump continues to trounce Haley, she presses on as MAGA antagonist


She came in third in Iowa. She lost by double digits in New Hampshire. In Nevada — where Donald Trump’s name wasn’t on the primary ballot — Nikki Haley trailed “none of these candidates” by more than 30 points.

On Saturday, Haley suffered another blow in the lopsided race for the Republican presidential nomination, losing to Trump by about 20 points in her home state of South Carolina. Yet she promised to press on.

“In the next 10 days, another 21 states and territories will speak,” Haley said Saturday night. “They have the right to a real choice, not a Soviet-style election with only one candidate. And I have a duty to give them that choice.”

As the last Republican candidate standing against Trump, Haley has drawn polarized reactions as she has become a vehicle for the deep discontent that some in the party feel about a Trump rematch with President Biden. More a symbolic reservoir for that sentiment than an obstacle on Trump’s path to the nomination, Haley has positioned herself as the leader of a vocal minority, saying Saturday that her roughly 40 percent showing “is not some tiny group,” but a sign that “huge numbers of voters in our Republican primaries” still want a Trump alternative.

Her decision to push forward, at least through Super Tuesday on March 5, has antagonized Trump and his allies and baffled plenty of political observers, who point out that there is little evidence she has a path to victory in a single state, let alone the primary as a whole. Her latest loss in South Carolina — where Haley served as governor for six years — ramps up the pressure on her to get out in the name of party unity, especially as she escalates her criticism of Trump.

Yet even as the indignities of the primary season pile up for Haley, some supporters are happy to see her continue as the voice of the old-guard conservative wing of the GOP that Trump has cast aside and done little to court or placate as he moves into general-election mode.

“Those of us from the Reagan wing of the party want her to stay in because we want to remind people we are still here,” said Eric Levine, a Haley donor. “We’re not winning without the Reagan wing of the party, and Nikki Haley represents that wing.”

Further head-to-head contests between Haley and Trump are likely to underscore how thoroughly the former president has reshaped the party and overpowered its traditionalists. Polls in numerous Super Tuesday states show Trump well ahead, and Trump’s team expects him to clinch the nomination by mid-March.

“She’s kind of showing how weak that wing of the party is,” GOP strategist Bob Heckman said of the camp behind Haley.

Yet Haley’s coalition includes precisely the kind of moderate and independent voters whom the Republican Party will be fighting for in November. “The very voters who support Nikki are the ones that Trump needs in the general election,” said Fergus Cullen, a former New Hampshire GOP party chairman who identifies as a “Never Trump” Republican.

Haley is allowing them to express their reservations, he argued, in the same way that Democrat Jerry Brown was a vehicle for expressing reservations about Bill Clinton in 1992.

“It’s Trump’s failure to make those people comfortable with him. … That’s his problem and that’s his responsibility,” Cullen said.

Haley’s allies acknowledge she faces tough odds but see her fight as important. “There are other reasons to run than winning,” said an official with SFA Fund, the pro-Haley super PAC, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the race more candidly. The official said Haley’s campaign had become more of a “crusade.”

Trump focused on the general election in his victory speech Saturday night in South Carolina. “I just want to say that I have never seen the Republican Party so unified as it is right now,” he said to cheers, noting the many Republican officials standing behind him.

Prominent Republicans, even some who are critical of Trump, have rallied behind the former president as his renomination appears inevitable. Trump was visibly angry at Haley last month after she promised to keep campaigning past New Hampshire, and even threatened that anyone who donated to her further would be “permanently barred” from his camp.

Haley treaded carefully around Trump for most of her campaign, telling voters that she would be more electable and that “rightly or wrongly, chaos follows him.” She said she would support Trump as the GOP nominee even if he was convicted in his pending criminal cases, and at one point she ducked questions about whether she would serve as his vice president, feeding speculation that she wanted to keep that path open.

As the field cleared and Trump turned his fire on Haley, however, she sharpened her case.

She questioned Trump’s mental fitness. She criticized Trump for saying he would encourage Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” to NATO members he is unhappy with. She pushed back hard after Trump mocked her husband’s absence on the campaign trail. (He is serving a voluntary deployment in Djibouti with the South Carolina Army National Guard.) She rebuked Trump’s “America First” policies, saying recently that “it’s not ‘America First’ to bankrupt Social Security by doing nothing to fix it.”

“I feel no need to kiss the ring. I have no fear of Trump’s retribution,” she said in a speech recently, as many Republicans suggested that she was hurting her political career by extending her campaign against Trump and ramping up her criticism.

In that speech — meant to explain why she wasn’t dropping out — Haley citing polling showing that most Americans are unhappy with a Trump-Biden rematch. They deserve a voice, she said: “I’ll keep fighting until the American people close the door.”

Some Republicans see a practical value in Haley campaigning for as long as she can, on the outside chance that some dramatic event makes Trump unviable. “If something happens, she’s the one who can pick up the pieces,” said Levine. “It makes sense for her … to stay in, continue to gather delegates. She has the money to do it.”

Yet it’s not clear that even a conviction in one of Trump’s trials would sideline him, because the cases have largely served to motivate Republicans.

Some Republicans are especially eager to move on fully from the primary because Trump and his allies trail Biden in fundraising. Haley and her allies have continued to raise money at a pace that has given her some runway, they say — a point of frustration for some Trump supporters.

“It’s time to rally around the eventual nominee,” said Dan Eberhart, a GOP donor who backed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for president but then endorsed Trump after DeSantis dropped out.

Tom Davis, a South Carolina state legislator who endorsed Haley, argued it’s “healthy” for Haley to drive a broader discussion about the Republican Party as some reel at its transformation under Trump and support the conservatism that Haley has championed, such as U.S. engagement abroad.

“Haley is the last person standing against Donald Trump in this primary having that larger conversation about what kind of a party do we want to be,” Davis said.

Dylan Wells contributed to this report.



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