Republicans are warning against counting Nikki Haley out in the 2024 presidential race after a better-than-expected campaign rollout this week that offered an early lens into how she plans to take on former President Donald Trump.
In her Wednesday campaign kickoff and a subsequent swing through New Hampshire, Haley made the central theme of her presidential bid clear: The Republican Party has an image problem and needs to install a new generation of leaders capable of presenting a forward-looking vision if it hopes to turn around its political fortunes.
“America is not past its prime,” she told a crowd of supporters at a rally in Charleston, S.C., on Wednesday. “It’s just that our politicians are past theirs.”
That message has so far been well-received by many Republican operatives and strategists, especially after the GOP’s lackluster performance in the 2022 midterm elections. Yet they still say that Haley’s path to her party’s presidential nomination remains tenuous and unclear.
“I think it’s good for Republicans and conservatives to have her out there,” said Dallas Woodhouse, a longtime GOP operative and the executive director of the conservative South Carolina Policy Council. “The Republican Party — it kind of has an image problem, and Haley can help with that. Now, whether she wins or not, that’s a whole different thing.”
But Woodhouse also cautioned against trying to forecast Haley’s success or failure in the 2024 race, arguing that the GOP is “in uncharted waters like we’ve never seen before.”
“You get this sense talking to people that, yeah, she’s a pretty good candidate. Not sure she can beat Trump, maybe they like DeSantis a little better,” he said. “But voters have a funny way of deciding who they want and who can win.”
For now, at least, Haley has a lot of ground to make up. A Quinnipiac University poll released this week found the former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador running in a distant third place behind former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in a hypothetical primary contest.
That poll largely tracks with other recent surveys suggesting that the early Republican primary is a two-way race between Trump and DeSantis, a darling of conservatives who is widely expected to seek the GOP nomination but hasn’t made an official announcement.
Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign, warned against reading too much into those early polls, arguing “at this point, they’re pretty meaningless,” given that the first nominating contests are still roughly a year away and only two candidates — Trump and Haley — have jumped into the race so far.
“Just ask President Giuliani and President Clinton how relevant the polls are at this stage in the campaign,” he said, referring to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton, both of whom failed to capture their parties’ presidential nominations after leading in early polls.
“They’re largely tests of name ID and early enthusiasm,” Conant continued. “But it’s a really long process; you can’t underestimate the importance of the debates. Candidates are going to rise and fall. It’s just a really unpredictable process.”
Woodhouse’s group, the South Carolina Policy Council, conducted a poll last month testing a hypothetical head-to-head matchup between Trump and DeSantis showing the Florida governor with a lead among South Carolina Republican voters. Woodhouse noted that the poll “isn’t a predictive measure,” but shows that “there is an interest for Republicans in looking at other candidates.”
Still, some Republicans say Haley’s challenges run deeper than her low-standing in the early polls.
Her status as the first Republican to challenge Trump for the 2024 nomination means she’ll have to map out a strategy for dealing with a former president known for his unrelenting attacks on his real or perceived political enemies. And while Trump himself has so far said little about Haley’s entrance into the race, his allies are already testing out lines of attack.
After Haley launched her campaign with an online video on Tuesday, the main super PAC aligned with the former president dubbed her a “career politician” and accused her of stepping down from her position as U.N. ambassador to “rake in money on corporate boards.”
A day later, Trump’s campaign blasted out an email tying Haley to Hillary Clinton and resurfacing past comments expressing support for cutting Medicare and Social Security.
And there are lingering questions about exactly what lane she hopes to carve out for herself in a potentially crowded primary field.
One Republican consultant and presidential campaign veteran described Haley’s strategy as trying to bridge the gap between more traditional conservative values, like reducing government spending and the federal deficit, and the right-wing populism that is pervasive in the current GOP and exemplified by the likes of Trump and DeSantis.
Haley signaled this week that she could try to outflank DeSantis on the right when she said at a campaign event in New Hampshire that the Florida governor’s controversial Parental Rights in Education Act, which bans classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, doesn’t go “far enough.”
“At some point you’re going to have to be clear about who you are,” the consultant said. “I mean, can you say that you’re someone who wants to bring people together and then turn around and criticize a sitting governor — and frankly one of the most popular people in the Republican Party — as not tough enough? I think there’s a risk of seeming wishy-washy.”
As for her pitch that she would represent a new generation of leadership for the GOP and the country, it’s a lane that Haley likely won’t be the only one to occupy.
At 44 years old, DeSantis is nearly seven years younger than Haley and is widely viewed by conservatives as a younger and more disciplined alternative to Trump and his brand of Republicanism. And several other prospective candidates are also under the age of 60.
Conant recalled how Rubio’s campaign sought to cast the Florida senator as a symbol of generational change. Ultimately, Conant said, that wasn’t enough to get him across the finish line.
“That’s what we tried to do in the Rubio campaign and it wasn’t what voters were looking for in 2016,” Conant said. “She’s running against two candidates whom age will be an issue for. I don’t think that’s her only message, but clearly it’s one that I would expect several of the other candidates to make.”
Of course, it’s not the first time Haley is running for office as an underdog. She first entered public office in 2005 after defeating the longest-serving member of the South Carolina Statehouse in a primary runoff.
Haley overcame long odds again in 2010 when she won the governor’s mansion, beating out a primary field that included several prominent Republicans, including then-state Attorney General Henry McMaster.
“I’ve been underestimated before,” she said at her Charleston campaign kickoff. “That’s always fun. And I’ve been shaking up the status quo my entire life.”