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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Can Nikki Haley Really Be an “Outsider” in Her Own State?

I try not to share too much content here that’s strictly about intra-Republican political matters. But I’ll make an exception today because Nikki Haley’s shape-shifting habits are relevant to political deception in every kind of election, as I explained at New York:

During her aggressively upbeat speech on primary night in New Hampshire, presidential candidate Nikki Haley obliquely acknowledged the fact that the overwhelming majority of Republican-elected officials in her home state of South Carolina — the next and perhaps final stop of the competitive phase of the 2024 GOP nomination battle — are backing Donald Trump.

“Every time I’ve run for office in South Carolina, I’ve beaten the political Establishment. They’re lined up against me again, that’s no surprise,” Haley said. “But South Carolina voters don’t want a coronation, they want an election.”

It was a bit of an odd note for a politician who was twice elected governor of the Palmetto State. Yes, it’s doubtless been difficult for Haley to watch her former home-state allies — including her successor, Governor Henry McMaster, and the man she appointed to the U.S. Senate, Tim Scott — climb aboard the Trump Train. But without question, it’s Trump’s intense popularity in South Carolina, not some sort of “Establishment” disdain for Insurgent Nikki, that has led to her embarrassing lack of elected official support back home. There haven’t been any public polls from the state since early January, but Trump’s smallest margin over Haley during the entire cycle has been 26 percentage points, and he’s at 52 percent there in the RealClearPolitics averages. It’s no surprise: Trump won the state’s primary in 2016, beating out Marco Rubio, the preferred candidate of the South Carolina Republican “Establishment” at the time (he was endorsed by both Scott and Haley).

So perhaps Haley has no real choice but to seek to re-acquire the mantle of the scrappy underdog fighting “the man,” a role she really did assume back in 2010 in her first race for governor. That contest, in which she came from the back of the pack to win a tightly contested Republican primary and runoff (and then a tough general election fight, a bit of an afterthought in that deep-red state) is now overtly becoming the model for Haley 2024 in South Carolina, as The State reports:

“’She’s always been the outsider, she didn’t have endorsements in 2010, she doesn’t have them now, she is running as the outsider anti-establishment candidate, same as 2010 and I think ultimately they have their endorsements and their Washington insiders and that’s totally fine,’ said [Olivia] Perez-Cubas, spokeswoman for the Haley campaign. ‘Nikki is focused on earning the votes and supporters and everyday Americans.’”

There are some big problems, however, with that analogy, other than the obvious fact that Haley was an obscure state legislator in 2010 and has been a dominant figure in Palmetto State Republican politics ever since. In 2010 Haley was the candidate of the hard-core Tea Party conservatives in what might be called the Jim DeMint–Mark Sanford wing of the GOP, systematic ideologues often at odds with the former Dixiecrats who were slowly dying out. Sanford’s bizarre 2009 extra-marital affair conducted under the guise of “hiking the Appalachian Trail” made him damaged goods in 2010, but his estranged wife, Jenny, was an important force behind Haley’s ascent. Her real stroke of luck, however, was becoming the very favorite candidate of the then-red-hot right-wing folk heroine Sarah Palin, the veritable Queen of the Tea Party, who designated Haley a fellow Mama Grizzly, as the Washington Post recently recalled:

“Former congressman J. Gresham Barrett (R-S.C.) still remembers what he calls the ‘seismic’ quake that upended the 2010 South Carolina Republican primary for governor. …

“[F]ormer vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin came to town, holding a raucous rally for Haley on the steps of the South Carolina State House in downtown Columbia.

“’We felt a tectonic shift, honestly, to the point where we actually went back into the field the next week, because it was that earth-shattering,’ Barrett said.”

Palin’s high-profile backing perfectly set up Haley to campaign as the “conservative reformer” battling the state party’s “good ol’ boys” (code for former Democrats who had drifted into the GOP in opposition to civil rights measures). She beat Barrett in a runoff in which she won crucial backing from third-place finisher Henry McMaster (the same Henry McMaster who’s being deemed an “Establishment” figure for backing Trump), and the rest was history.

So how does this translate to 2024? Not very well. Trump is now the candidate of the right-wing insurgents, and he’s in the process of executing a hostile takeover of the Republican Establishment, with last-ditch resistance from beltway types and donors who are almost invariably backing Haley. In New Hampshire, Haley’s very best state going into the January 23 primary, Trump won (according to the exit polls) 71 percent of self-identified conservatives, and 89 percent of those who describe themselves as “very conservative.” These are the kind of Republicans Nikki Haley and Sarah Palin were appealing to in 2010. They are now populating the MAGA movement, which in many respects is the Tea Party on steroids and with a very bad attitude.

You can’t blame Haley for trying to make a virtue of necessity by treating her lack of elite and popular support in South Carolina as the product of an arrogant Establishment she is bravely battling, just as she did 14 years ago. To a limited extent, it might even work. A wild card in her 2010 victory was an ugly spate of racist and sexist comments and rumors about her (most notably undocumented claims of extramarital sexual activity) that reinforced her image as a courageous woman of principle fighting piggy rednecks. Trump’s strange decision to savage her personally for refusing to fold her tent, along with his penchant for racist nicknames for her, will bring back some unsavory Palmetto State memories of those early smears.

But in that respect as in others, Haley cannot expect Trump to win this or any other primary for her with his excesses. If nothing else, Trump’s crude antics will remind primary voters that no matter how many endorsements he gathers from elected officials, he’s the unrivaled King of Chaos, and his “establishment” is based on the very ideological extremism that gave Nikki Haley’s political career its first big lift.


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