Nikki Haley’s unexpected rise from ‘scrappy’ underdog to Trump’s closest rival – The Guardian US
The former South Carolina governor is rising in the polls but despite executive and foreign policy experience she has a mountain to climb
On Monday, Nikki Haley returned to the building where her political career began to formally submit the paperwork to appear on the Republican presidential primary ballot in her home state of South Carolina. Haley held up her filing for the cameras. In loopy writing she had scrawled: “Let’s do this!”
The exclamation punctuated Haley’s emergence as a viable alternative to Donald Trump. It comes nearly 20 years after Haley’s election to the South Carolina statehouse, having bested a 30-year Republican incumbent in a come-from-behind victory that stunned her party and began her unlikely ascent to the governor’s mansion and then to become Donald Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations.
“I’ve always been the underdog,” Haley said in remarks at the statehouse on Monday. “I enjoy that. It’s what makes me scrappy.”
In a Republican primary still thoroughly dominated by Trump, Haley is enjoying, for now, the next best thing: an unexpected rise to second place.
For Republicans desperate to move on from Trump, the 51-year-old’s “adult-in-the-room” candidacy presents a compelling choice: a conservative leader with executive experience and a foreign policy hawk who pushed “America First” on a global stage. Her record, combined with her personal story as the daughter of Indian immigrants, would be hard to beat in a general election, her proponents argue, and would help broaden Republicans’ appeal among women, suburbanites and independents – groups that recoiled from the party during the Trump years.
A pair of strong debate performances, a consolidating field and a sharp new focus on foreign policy following Hamas’s 7 October attack on Israel have helped elevate Haley’s profile – and prospects – as she woos Republican voters and donors.
In the early voting states of New Hampshire and South Carolina, polls show Haley surging past Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor whose campaign has stalled ever since he entered the race as de facto runner-up to Trump. She is also gaining ground in Iowa, which launches the Republican nominating process.
In a survey released on Monday by the Des Moines Register, Haley climbed 10 points to 16%, putting her even with DeSantis as he struggles to break through against Trump.
But underscoring just how difficult it will be for any candidate not named Trump to win the nomination, the poll found that the twice-impeached former president now facing four criminal indictments maintained a 27-point lead in Iowa, less than three months before the state’s caucuses.
“It is slow and steady wins the race,” Haley said, previewing her strategy at the capitol building on Monday. She predicted the once-sprawling Republican field would winnow considerably after Iowa and New Hampshire before the race turns to her “sweet state of South Carolina” where she vowed: “We’ll finish it.”
“I’ve got one more felIa I’ve gotta catch up to,” Haley told the crowd, “and I am determined to do it.”
Last month, Trump’s former vice-president Mike Pence, ended his bid for the White House. Before that the former Republican congressman Will Hurd, suspended his campaign and endorsed Haley. In an op-ed, he argued that she has “the character and credentials to lead, the willingness to take on Mr. Trump, and the conservative record needed to beat Joe Biden”.
That is the essence of Haley’s pitch to voters: that she is the most electable. To argue her case, she points to polling that shows her beating Biden in a hypothetical general election matchup.
On the campaign trail, she likes to remind Republican voters that the party has lost the popular vote in the last seven out of eight presidential elections. “That’s nothing to be proud of,” she told the Daily Show guest host Charlamagne Tha God on Wednesday.
Electability is the strongest argument Trump’s Republican rivals can make to voters, said Gunner Ramer, political director of the anti-Trump Republican Accountability Pac. But it’s almost certainly not enough to pry the nomination from him.
There was a window after Republicans’ poor showing in the 2022 midterms when Trump appeared vulnerable to a primary challenge, he said. But his grip on the party has not only recovered since then, each indictment against him has seemed to harden the loyalty he inspires from his followers.
“Her campaign is something out of 2015,” Ramer said. “It’s a reminder of what a competent Republican presidential campaign could look like if it were 2015. But we are in an era of a Donald Trump-led and inspired Republican party.”
Strategists say Haley’s path to the nomination would probably require a strong performance in New Hampshire and an even better one – if not an upset – in South Carolina to send her into Super Tuesday as the clear Trump alternative.
Despite growing calls for the Republican field to consolidate behind Haley, polls still show her trailing far behind Trump in both states. But longtime supporters say not to underestimate her, especially not in her home state, where she’s never lost an election.
“In South Carolina, the same people who voted for Donald Trump for president twice have voted for Nikki Haley for governor twice,” said Katon Dawson, a former chair of the South Carolina Republican party who supports Haley. “It’s early yet.”
While Trump has been holding his signature rallies between courtroom appearances and avoiding the debate stage, Haley has kept a frenetic campaign schedule, embracing the retail politics that she became known for in South Carolina. This week, she spoke to an overflow crowd at a diner in New Hampshire, where she was joined by the state’s Republican governor, Chris Sununu, a prominent Trump critic whose endorsement is highly coveted.
“Are you ready to endorse me?” she teased.
“Getting closer every day,” he replied.
The clearest sign of Haley’s momentum may be the attention she’s drawing from her former boss.
“Donald Trump isn’t stupid. He knows a threat when he sees one,” said Preya Samsundar, a spokesperson for a pro-Haley Super Pac. “And the fact that he’s zeroing in on Nikki instead of DeSantis is very telling.”
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At a recent campaign rally in Iowa, Trump, who used to focus his ire almost exclusively on DeSantis, assailed Haley as a “highly overrated person”. Repeatedly referring to her by the derogatory nickname “Birdbrain”, Trump complained to the crowd that Haley had broken her promise to him that she would not run against him for the Republican nomination if he ran in 2024.
Haley’s turn in the spotlight will inevitably invite more scrutiny. Ahead of next week’s Republican debate in Florida, Haley and DeSantis have ramped up their attacks on each other, tussling over who has a more hardline track record on immigration and foreign policy among other policy issues.
In a spiky back-and-forth, DeSantis accused Haley of wanting to resettle refugees from Gaza in the United States, to which Haley is firmly opposed. She has assailed DeSantis for distorting her words.
DeSantis’s team has waved off any suggestion that he and Haley’s campaigns are on opposite trajectories, arguing that the Florida governor remains Trump’s strongest challenger.
“This is a two-man race, and Team Trump knows it,” Bryan Griffin, a press secretary for the DeSantis campaign, said in a statement. “That’s why they’re spending $1m to attack DeSantis in Iowa after proclaiming the primary was ‘over’.”
Democrats are also weighing in against her. In recent weeks, they have sought to elevate Haley’s conservative record, particularly on abortion, which has been a damaging issue for Republicans since the supreme court overturned Roe v Wade last year.
Jaime Harrison, chair of the Democratic National Committee who is also from South Carolina, accused Haley of “trying to rewrite history” by softening her approach on abortion. As governor, he noted, Haley signed into law a 20-week abortion ban that did not include exceptions for rape or incest.
“Nikki may be singing a different song now, but don’t be fooled,” Harrison wrote on X, formerly Twitter, “when it comes to the issues, she is just as extreme as the rest of the MAGA field.”
Perhaps Haley’s biggest asset at the moment is the sudden salience of foreign policy, amid the deepening conflict in Gaza.
In recent weeks, Haley has emphasized her staunch support of Israel. As Trump’s UN ambassador, she championed his administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and then relocate the US embassy from Tel Aviv. She also pulled the US out of the UN human rights council after accusing it of displaying “unending hostility towards Israel”.
Haley used a recent appearance at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual meeting in Las Vegas to issue some of her most scathing attacks on Trump to date, questioning his capacity to lead the country at such a precarious moment. With wars raging in the Middle East and Europe, and China posing new challenges, Haley said the stakes were too high for another “four years of chaos, vendettas and drama”.
“America needs a captain who will steady the ship,” she said, “not capsize it.”
As she plows ahead, Haley is also testing her party’s willingness to elect a woman of color to the nation’s highest office.
In her campaign launch, she nodded to the possibility that her candidacy could make history. “I will simply say this: may the best woman win.” (In the same speech she also denounced “identity politics” and “glass ceilings”.)
No woman has ever won a Republican presidential primary contest, let alone the party’s nomination. And to do so, she must wrest control of the party from the frontrunner, a former president with a long record of attacking women and people of color in demeaning and vulgar terms.
“Top predictors of votes for Donald Trump are hostile sexism and racial resentment,” said Kelly Dittmar, director of research and a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
“So how do you as a south Asian woman run against the person who has won on sentiments that also work against you as an individual?”
Dawson, the former South Carolina party chair, said if any Republican can defy the odds and beat Trump, it will be Haley. He says he’s counting on the voters in South Carolina to their first female governor make history again by putting her on the path to becoming America’s first female president.
“Indira Gandhi of India. Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain. Angela Merkel of Germany,” he said. “Next it’s Nikki Haley.”