Why Is Nikki Haley Running for President?

On Thursday night, Nikki Haley strode into the first stop on her Presidential campaign tour, a town hall in Exeter, New Hampshire, escorted by Don Bolduc, the retired general whose failed Senate run ended in this same room three months earlier. Bolduc had distinguished himself during the midterms as an unabashed election denier, before walking

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On Thursday night, Nikki Haley strode into the first stop on her Presidential campaign tour, a town hall in Exeter, New Hampshire, escorted by Don Bolduc, the retired general whose failed Senate run ended in this same room three months earlier. Bolduc had distinguished himself during the midterms as an unabashed election denier, before walking back his stance; Haley’s Stand for America PAC had given his campaign ten thousand dollars. “The fact that she started her campaign here in New Hampshire, in a town hall, is indicative of how she feels about Americans in the Granite State,” Bolduc told a standing-room-only crowd. “This is quintessential New Hampshire. This is the way it should be: coffee-breath close.”

Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and Donald Trump’s Ambassador to the United Nations, had announced her decision to run against her former boss two days earlier, earning the distinction of being the first Republican to challenge Trump in next year’s primary. The move was met with a fair amount of derision. In the Bulwark, the anti-Trump Republican strategist Sarah Longwell said that Haley was the perfect candidate—but for a bygone era of Republican politics. The Times’ editorial board declared that “Nikki Haley Will Not Be the Next President,” and its counterpart at the Wall Street Journal observed that there was “no clear rationale” for Haley’s bid. For Haley, it was the perfect setup. As she told the crowd in Exeter, “I don’t care if they underestimate me, because that’s always fun. They said I couldn’t win when I ran up against a thirty-year incumbent [for the state legislature]. . . . When I ran for governor, what I didn’t tell you was I ran against a lieutenant governor, a congressman, an attorney general, and a state senator—and I was Nikki who? Nobody had heard of me.”

Haley’s announcement, coming when it did, was politically astute. With no other Republican candidate formally in the race beside Trump, she captured the news cycle, compelled pundits to take her seriously, scored a sitdown on the “Today” show, and got network reporters to trek to New Hampshire in the middle of winter. She also earned props in some quarters for putting herself in the line of Trump’s verbal fire. Trump, who has already come up with nicknames for his likely most competitive rival, Ron DeSantis (“Ron DeSanctimonious”), anticipated Haley’s announcement with a snide but gentle gibe, at least for him. “Nikki has to follow her heart, not her honor. She should definitely run,” he posted on his social-media platform, Truth Social, along with a video of Haley saying, in April, 2src21, that she wouldn’t run against him. For the time being, Haley is more likely to help, not hurt, Trump. “Maybe he tries to pump up Haley because she’s more likely to take vote share from DeSantis than him,” Longwell told me. “Like, she pulls off normie votes.”

By “normie,” Longwell means old-school Republicans: conservatives who espouse limited government and free markets, who consider John McCain a hero and Russia a mortal enemy. But Longwell told me that the modern Republican Party has little use for a candidate like Haley. The night before Haley’s announcement, she convened a focus group of people who twice voted for Trump. “They said that they don’t want to go backward,” Longwell noted. “They like the direction Trump has taken the Party. They don’t think it has to be Trump, but they do think it has to be somebody in Trump’s mold, and they view Nikki Haley as establishment, as part of the Republican Party that they’ve left behind.”

In Exeter, the crowd was definitely buying what Haley was selling, which, in large measure, was herself. Dressed casually, in black slacks and a purple sweater, she didn’t look like a politician and she didn’t act like one. She stood at eye level, inches from the audience, microphone in hand, pacing the floor, speaking easily and without notes. She was polished and articulate, but not so polished and articulate that she came across as prepackaged and fake. She was affable and measured, taking a few jabs at Joe Biden, but without rancor. Before the event, every person I spoke with told me that, after years of Trump’s divisiveness and bullying, they were looking for a candidate who was optimistic and good-natured. That’s the candidate who was in the room.

If Haley represents the old-guard G.O.P., it is only in her hawkish approach to foreign policy. In contrast to the “America First” contingent of Republicans currently in Congress, who see no reason for the United States to support Ukraine, Haley perceives Russian aggression in a larger context. “It’s not a war about Ukraine. This is about a war on freedom,” she said, after an audience member asked her position on the conflict. “Because if Russia takes Ukraine, they said Poland and the Baltics are next, and we’re looking at a world war. And if Russia wins, you can bet China’s gonna take Taiwan, Iran’s gonna get the bomb.” She went on, “If they lose, it tells every dictator and enemy of the West, ‘Don’t mess with us.’ . . . That does not mean we send troops. It does not mean we write blank checks. What it means is we get together with those NATO countries, and we say, ‘What are you going to do?’ . . . And we all make sure they have the equipment and the ammunition to win that for themselves.”

In almost every other way, though, Haley’s politics align with the more extreme wing of the Republican Party. Yes, she opposed Trump’s “Muslim ban” when he first proposed it, as a candidate in 2src15. But when President Trump actually issued an executive order barring entry to the United States to people from several Muslim-majority countries, she defended the action, saying that it “was not a Muslim ban.” And yes, as governor, Haley oversaw the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina State House after a white supremacist murdered nine Black people attending a Bible study at Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. But, as Aaron Blake wrote recently in the Washington Post, “in the years since taking that stand, she has lamented that the Charleston killings sullied a flag that for many represents heritage rather than racism.” Haley’s gift is to come across as a moderate while espousing immoderate views and surrounding herself with extremists.

It was a calculated decision to be introduced by General Bolduc, whom many New Hampshire Republicans found too extreme when he ran for Senate, just as it was to invite the right-wing, evangelical pastor John Hagee, known for making antisemitic and homophobic comments, to give the invocation at Haley’s South Carolina campaign kickoff. “To Pastor Hagee, I still say I want to be you when I grow up,” Haley gushed when she took the podium. At that event, she also elevated Ralph Norman, the South Carolina congressman who wanted Trump to declare martial law to stay in power and voted against certifying the election. “You know I would have been right there with you in Congress, holding them accountable,” she told him. (Norman was the first person to endorse Haley; Bolduc was the second.) These were not dog whistles. They were blatant expressions of Haley’s ideology. They may have been expedient—a way to let the MAGA crowd know that she is not, in fact, a “normie”—but there is no reason to suppose they are not real.

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