Nikki Haley’s Rise Could Turn the Republican Nomination Race Brutal

From a New York Times column by Katherine Miller headlined “Nikki Haley’s Rise Could Turn the Republican Nomination Race Brutal”:

A long time ago in South Carolina, as Nikki Haley recalls when she talks to voters in New Hampshire and Iowa, she ran campaigns that nobody thought much of until, unexpectedly, suddenly, she was winning them. Is that what’s happening here? Is this real?

She is gaining in the places that matter. And she is running the campaign she’s run before: hard-core conservative on fiscal matters and immigration, kitchen-table pragmatic on basically everything else. A plaintive quality in Ms. Haley’s voice joins up well with the grim statistics she shares about kids’ reading and math proficiency since the pandemic and about what happens to veterans after they come home. She spends a good deal of time talking about U.S. support for Ukraine (and Israel) as bulwarks against further deterioration of the world order while outlining a hawkish “peace through strength” approach toward China.

There are a hundred little switches that would need to flip from now, in a big mousetrap-style path, toward victory. If a bloc of Republican voters’ support for Donald Trump is as soft as some polling indicates and if Ms. Haley could somehow continue to elevate herself the rest of the way, the race for the G.O.P. nomination would turn brutal — and volatile confrontation with Mr. Trump would be inevitable.

Survivors of such moments have been rare, but for those few, like Brian Kemp, the Georgia governor, survival becomes a position of strength. Maybe people forgot Ms. Haley’s early campaigns in favor of the easy relationship she had with Mr. Trump, but they might prove instructive.

In person, her campaign feels different from Mr. Trump’s and those of the other challengers; if she agrees with them on immigration, the tone and emphasis on much of the rest differ. This includes her general impulse toward knocking Washington (both Republicans and Democrats) rather than the cultural Marxists that animate most Republican visions of what ails the country.

You are, in general, unlikely to hear at another national Republican event answers about access to contraceptives, the importance of attracting and training more mental health counselors or even a slight openness to the idea of businesses transitioning to the use of electric vehicles (if on a longer time frame than the Biden administration’s and only after Ms. Haley goes on a long riff about calling out China and India). In Nikki Haley, these things flow fluidly alongside outlines of her plan to raise the retirement age for the youngest generation or extended and hard comments about the border, including a reactionary “it only takes one” warning about terrorism.

Ms. Haley remains the governor who, after promising during a campaign to keep the Confederate battle flag on state grounds, later leaned on Republicans to take it down, who signed a state law requiring businesses to check the federal E-Verify immigration status program and who gave a State of the Union response about the value and honor of immigrants that doubled as a rebuke to Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. She then served in Mr. Trump’s administration, where she pursued sanctions on Russia. Depending on how you view Ms. Haley, these are evidence of a lack of core or the subtleties of a realist with a long game. Either way, it’s indisputable that her career runs toward brisk, business-friendly sobriety and that she hasn’t lost before.

Winning is on the mind of this campaign. The strategy looks like this: Ms. Haley walking slow, subtle figure eights encircled by voters on a Thursday evening in Nashua, N.H. She spoke for 33 minutes in a well-lit space inside a building that’s seen better days; answered questions for 23 minutes; shook hands; signed posters and posed for photos with older couples in puffy jackets gently touching her back for at least half an hour; stood and worked the room again until, essentially, she was the last person in it, touching up her own makeup to do a TV interview in the near dark as staff members broke down and packed up the remaining gear.

That’s the logistical play here: grinding out fractions of percentage points, voter by voter, event by event, with low overhead and a distinct tone, elevated here and there by pointed moments on television.

“Eight years ago, it was good to have a leader who broke things,” she told the Republican Jewish Coalition late last month, part of a highly pro-Israel speech that drew some attention. “But right now, we need a leader who also knows how to put things back together.”

From here, Ms. Haley would need to continue accruing steady, modest gains; serious money would have to come through to pay for TV ads that really land; donors would have to give up their eternal dream of Glenn Youngkin, the Virginia governor a number of Republican donors envision as the candidate to wait for. More current candidates, especially Chris Christie, would need to drop out before, not after, the New Hampshire primary.

She’d need to flip some senators, governors or conservative talk radio types — who knows who? — into believers and for their belief to be persuasive with a real segment of Trump-leaning conservatives. Independents and, because every vote counts, the Romney-to-Biden crowd would need to prioritize her candidacy in states where they can vote in primaries like New Hampshire and South Carolina and in many of the Super Tuesday states.

She’d need to continue dominating debates, she’d need to not fade or completely lose it when Mr. Trump turns a real attack on her, and more than anything, she’d need a substantive critique, even if gently delivered, of Mr. Trump to feel true and land with people. Maybe it’s that idea of putting things back together, which she did not repeat in New Hampshire last week and has the virtue of matching Ms. Haley’s vibe while responding to the widespread feeling the earth is falling apart. A win in Iowa or New Hampshire for Ms. Haley would reset the entire primary contest.

This or some array of similar conditions still seems very unlikely. But it’s a lot less unlikely than it was six months ago. And it’s more or less what happened, on a smaller scale, for Ms. Haley when she ran for the South Carolina Legislature in 2004 and for governor in 2010. Those campaigns started off seeming ridiculous and involved Ms. Haley holding doughnuts and knocking on doors for votes (though that is what it looks like when someone runs against a longtime incumbent).

Then those campaigns gradually caught on and brought in such disparate backers as Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney, and — though she didn’t mention it when she talked about those campaigns last week — when they became competitive, the campaigns ended in brutal attacks on her, and Haley won.

Last winter, when she announced, a lot of people considered her campaign a waste of time. Even more, they argued that her glossy corporateness was out of touch with today’s G.O.P., that she must be running for vice president. That response likely derived from the ridiculous period after Jan. 6, when Ms. Haley criticized Mr. Trump harshly, then seemed to dial it back. Part of it is the smooth, pain-free way Ms. Haley entered and extricated herself from the Trump administration, after criticizing him in 2016 and endorsing Marco Rubio.

Some of it is the fluid way she talks and the clothes, too, even if they likely hark back to a not-Ivy League facet of her life: growing up working in a clothing store in the small-town South. This picture of Ms. Haley culminated in Vivek Ramaswamy congratulating her on her future on the Raytheon board.

But the full Haley story has a lot of brutal moments in it; hers is not a soft career. She really brings something out in people: guys who used slurs to describe her; the former Democratic Party official who in 2013 compared her to Eva Braun and said she should go back where she came from, then said he meant “being an accountant in her parents’ dress shop”; Rex Tillerson, who used a sexist term to describe her, according to the writer Tim Alberta. There have been people who have said she lies about her religion. The political consultant Stuart Stevens recently told The New Yorker that the only difference between Ms. Haley and Marjorie Taylor Greene was “purely aesthetic.”

In 2004, when she was running for the state legislature, people sent racist mailers about her parents, who had lived in South Carolina for 30 years, had painted an American flag on the ceiling of their clothing store and had organized a local international night and science programs in their small town. Except voters in the district felt as if they knew her. “By that point, Nikki had already met every single voter who got those mailers,” a former state party chairman, Katon Dawson, told Mr. Alberta. “They all had talked to her. It made a lot of those people angry on her behalf.”

When she ran for governor, multiple men claimed to have had affairs with Ms. Haley, who denied this. Voters felt she got a bad shake. In this way, one consistency in the Haley story is the way pain can be transformed into a political weapon, used to prevail in elections or push another Republican to vote to take the Confederate battle flag down.

It’s a hypothetical on top of a hypothetical to think about what would happen if Mr. Trump attacked a candidate who’s polling, at best, at 19 percent in New Hampshire right now. But there’s no total glide path to defeating him; he will force confrontation, and Ms. Haley’s campaign seems engineered to bring that about but only at the end. Would it work the same way as before for her?

There is the possibility that no matter what Ms. Haley does, this ends with an emphatic defeat, with voters primed to have their better impulses wrecked by Mr. Trump, with people in media and politics waiting to have every suspicion about her oscillations affirmed. Maybe this moment is the ceiling, and Ms. Haley fades. Maybe she’ll pull up stakes and endorse Mr. Trump in the end, accepting reality but invalidating the interest and trust people on one side of the party might have in her. Or it’s the others: Candidates won’t drop out; the money and endorsements won’t come through; voters won’t take the chance.

But perhaps, the alchemy works again: The candidate keeps gaining and doesn’t fold at the decisive moment, and people walk away more secure in their vote and even protective. That happened with Mr. Kemp in Georgia, and it happened with Ms. Haley before.

And yes, this is all horse race — who’s up, who’s down, about winning the presidency over being president. But resolving the Trump candidacy through political, persuasive means is actually an important civic project, one that could end with an imitation of Mr. Trump or someone else. Ms. Haley clearly thinks there’s a way to do this that combines enough of what hard-line and moderate conservatives care about in real life, that joins the hard-liners’ desire to win and the moderates’ desire to move on from Mr. Trump. The biggest enemy she will have to defeat is people’s idea of what other people want from politics now.

In a diner in Londonderry, N.H., last week, a voter asked Ms. Haley for her help in defending her against some specific claims. “Absolutely,” she said. “First of all, you need to think of a presidential election — at least the way I look at it — it’s about relationships and trust. Right?”

Katherine Miller is a Times staff writer and editor in Opinion.

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