COLUMBIA, South Carolina –
For months, the losers in the presidential primaries refused to admit defeat. He fought hard state after state, even as the favorite built up a delegate lead that would be virtually impossible to overcome.
The protracted feud between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in 2016, which grew more bitter as time went on, left Democratic divisions that would ultimately contribute to their party’s crushing defeat in the general election.
Eight years later, some Republicans fear history will soon repeat itself.
Nikki Haley’s path to the Republican nomination is rapidly narrowing following recent losses in Iowa and New Hampshire. She but she vows to stay in the race indefinitely, backed by thousands of committed donors, a key portion of the party’s moderate wing and a new willingness to attack the mental fitness and legal background of 2024 Republican front-runner Donald Trump. And the more Haley fights, the more Republican officials fear she could hurt her long-term prospects in the almost certain looming general election against Democratic President Joe Biden.
Former Trump adviser David Urban described Haley’s continued presence as a distraction, a waste of resources and a source of frustration.
“No one on Trump’s team believes (a showdown with Biden) is going to be easy. It’s going to be a bumpy road. It’s going to be a tough race. They want to hit the ground running and get going,” Urban said. “People need to start coming together and working together. But right now, none of that is happening because she is still out there stoking the anti-Trump fire.”
‘I am not going anywhere’
Of course, Haley is in a very different position than Sanders during the epic 2016 campaign. In fact, the Vermont senator won races, including his 22-point victory in the New Hampshire primary. Unless he pulls off a dramatic turnaround, Haley’s 11-point deficit in the same state last month may prove to be the highlight of his presidential bid.
Haley decided to skip the Nevada presidential caucuses next Thursday in favor of a state primary election two days earlier that does not award delegates. Trump could embarrass Haley in her home state of South Carolina later this month, where the former president has a loyal following. A Washington Post-Monmouth University poll conducted Thursday found Trump with a 26-point lead in the state.
However, in practical terms (and by Haley’s calculations), the GOP primaries have only just begun. Only two states have voted so far in a process that will eventually span all 50 before concluding at the Republican Party’s national nominating convention in July.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he told reporters Thursday. “We have a country to save. And I am determined to keep going until the end. As long as we can continue to close that gap, I will continue to stay.”
Such comments increasingly draw the ire of Trump, who is eager to put the primaries behind him entirely and focus on Biden. Around the same time Haley was talking about her, Trump was attacking her on social media. One post he shared said, “Nikki Haley is bought and paid for by our political enemies,” and another described Haley as “deeply unpleasant” to a growing number of Americans.
Some Republicans worry that Trump’s preoccupation with Haley, whom he frequently calls a “brain,” could further alienate moderate voters and suburban women.
Haley’s assets grow
Haley is getting stronger by some measures.
His campaign has raised $5 million from small donors in the days since he finished second in New Hampshire, according to spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik. She is also in the midst of a four-state fundraising tour that will include at least 10 closed-door events with wealthy donors. This week’s initial tour of New York generated more than $1.5 million, Soloveichik said.
Republican fundraiser Eric Levine, co-host of one of the New York events, said the few hundred Haley donors who gathered earlier in the week “remain as committed to Haley as ever.”
Haley’s campaign manager, Betsy Ankney, highlighted the candidate’s commitment to the race during a meeting with some major GOP donors earlier this week in Florida, according to two Republican officials in the room who were granted anonymity to share private discussions. Trump’s senior adviser, Susie Wiles, also gave a presentation to the group, which was designed to highlight the former president’s increasing control over the nomination.
Many major donors continue to criticize Trump, but some of Haley’s biggest potential supporters are essentially in a holding pattern ahead of the Feb. 24 primary in South Carolina. They believe she is essentially fully funded for the rest of the month and there is little else they can do in the short term, according to officials.
Two of the group’s founders, billionaire hedge fund managers Ken Griffin and Paul Singer, each donated $5 million to Haley’s 2024 bid in recent weeks, according to federal documents made public this week.
Trump also continues to report strong fundraising totals. But his legal problems are eating up a lot of his donors’ money.
Two of Trump’s political action committees spent approximately $50 million in donor funds on the former president’s legal fees last year, according to federal documents made public this week. And their legal costs continue to grow.
Haley’s aggressive strategy
Haley has begun escalating attacks on Trump, a deliberate strategy designed to highlight the former president’s obvious liabilities, including his legal baggage and age.
The campaign lumped Trump and Biden together in a new attack ad this week calling them “Grumpy Old Men.” He is also working to link Trump, 77,’s refusal to debate with questions about his mental acuity. And in an interview Wednesday on the “Breakfast Club” radio show, he blamed Trump for the state of the country’s politics.
“It’s made it chaotic,” he said. “He has made Him self-absorbed.”
His message appears to be resonating with a key group of undecided voters who play a key role in the general election.
In the recent New Hampshire primary, for example, Trump won a decisive victory against Haley backed by his popularity among traditional Republican voters. But he lost most moderates and about two-thirds of those who identify as independents, according to AP VoteCast. He also lost about 6 in 10 who have college degrees and has shown persistent vulnerability among voters who live in the suburbs.
But the Republican base is still resolutely behind Trump. And a growing group of Republican elected officials on Capitol Hill are calling for Haley to drop out of the race. Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel recently said it was time to unite behind Trump.
BJ Hopper, an 81-year-old self-described “Never Trumper,” has doubts that Haley will catch up to Trump, but he attended Thursday’s stop in South Carolina’s capital because he’s trying to remain hopeful.
“It would be a miracle,” Hopper said of a Haley victory in the state’s upcoming primary.
While much of the attention is focused on South Carolina, Haley’s campaign insists that its goal there is not to win, but simply to show growth compared to New Hampshire. She is building campaign infrastructure in upcoming Michigan and in several states that will host primaries on March 5, also known as “Super Tuesday.”
Haley’s campaign has already implemented “Women for Nikki” leadership teams and chapters in all 15 Super Tuesday states. A pro-Haley super PAC is also coordinating get-out-the-vote efforts in South Carolina, Michigan and several Super Tuesday states. This is in addition to the Koch-backed conservative group, Americans for Prosperity, which has dedicated its army of grassroots activists in several key states to helping Haley.
Specifically, the group is knocking on doors, sending pro-Haley mailers and posting online ads in Tennessee, North Carolina, Arkansas and Virginia.
But the Koch network will not continue supporting her if it determines there is no path to victory, according to conversations between Koch officials and donors at a private retreat last week in California, where Haley discussed the status of her presidential campaign during a brief video. call.
During a separate session with major donors, AFP Action senior advisers Emily Seidel and Michael Palmer reaffirmed the group’s decision to back Haley given that she is the last standing alternative to Trump, according to an official with direct knowledge of conversations he spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss strategy.
Seidel and Palmer also made it clear to donors that the group would not make future investments in any campaign if there was no chance of winning, the official said, pointing to the Kochs’ traditional business-like approach to politics.
Meanwhile, other Republican operatives believe Haley’s continued candidacy creates unnecessary risks for the notoriously undisciplined Trump.
“The longer she stays and the more Trump focuses on her, the greater the likelihood of unforced errors,” said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. “She’s giving the Biden campaign ammunition.”
Peoples reported from New York.