WASHINGTON — Nikki Haley formally launched her 2024 presidential bid Wednesday morning in front of friends, family and supporters in downtown Charleston, S.C., setting the stage for a bout with her former boss, Donald Trump, in the Republican primary.
Haley affirmed a strong commitment to defending American values, criticized the work of the Biden Administration and called for a new generation of Republican leadership.
“Today our enemies think that the American era has passed. They’re wrong,” Haley said. “America is not past our prime, it’s just that our politicians are past theirs.”
The former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations’ speech came just one day after she announced her candidacy on social media and filed documentation with the Federal Election Commission. She is the second candidate to enter the 2024 field, with the other being Trump.
Though she did not mention the former president by name, she called for there to be term limits for members of Congress and mandatory mental competency tests for politicians over 75 years old.
“America is on a path of doubt, division and self destruction, a path of fading patriotism and weakening power. The stakes are nothing less than our survival,” Haley said. “Our best days are yet to come if we unite and fight to save our country. I have devoted my life to this fight and I’m just getting started.”
If elected, Haley would become the first woman to hold the office. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) on Tuesday said Haley entering the race is good for the Republican Party, which historically trails Democrats when it comes to female representation in government.
“To have a strong Republican woman out there who has been engaged at leadership on a lot of different levels sends a good message,” Murkowski said.
The South Carolina native is the daughter of Indian immigrants. She began her political career in the state’s house of representatives, defeating a 30-year incumbent, and became South Carolina’s governor in 2010 – the first non-white and non-male governor of the state.
After Trump was elected in 2016, he tabbed Haley for the United Nations ambassador post. The Senate confirmed her in a matter of days with only four Democrats voting against Haley. One of those Democrats was Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who acknowledged on Tuesday that Haley’s engagement on issues like human rights and China during her time in the U.N. exceeded his expectations.
“I do think having a Republican nominee who is aware of both how government works at the state level and has expressed some interest in our role in the world in a way that is grounded in experience would be a positive,” Coons said.
Haley told the Associated Press last April that she would “not run if President Trump ran.” But after the midterms, she said she was looking at a presidential run in a “serious way” before eventually teasing her launch event in mid-January.
As rumors brewed about Haley entering the race last month, Trump called her “overly ambitious,” but was cordial with his comments on Tuesday.
“Even though Nikki Haley said, ‘I would never run against my President, he was a great President, the best President in my lifetime,’ I told her she should follow her heart and do what she wants to do. I wish her luck!” Trump said in a statement to CNN.
Despite the about-face on her presidential aspirations, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said Haley offers integrity, character, and vision to voters.
“She was a very effective governor and she exceeded expectations politically time and again. So she’s a figure to be reckoned with,” Romney told the Medill News Service, while acknowledging that Trump remains the frontrunner to win the Republican nomination.
Haley’s opinions of Trump have fluctuated over the years. She was initially critical of him when he ran for office in 2016, calling him “everything a governor doesn’t want in a president.” But after the two candidates she was backing dropped out of the race, she endorsed Trump at the Republican National Convention and did so again in 2020.
Their relationship took a turn after the Jan. 6 attack at the Capitol. Haley blamed Trump for promoting voter fraud conspiracies and not condemning the rioters.
“We need to acknowledge he let us down,” she told Politico on Jan. 12, 2021. “He went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.”
But like many Republicans who spoke harshly of the former president in the days after Jan. 6, she opposed his impeachment.
“Most of Mr. Trump’s major policies were outstanding and made America stronger, safer and more prosperous,” she wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in Feb. 2021. “Many of his actions since the election were wrong and will be judged harshly by history. That’s not a contradiction. It’s common sense.”
Haley’s recent public statements suggest she is walking a fine line between completely disavowing Trump and trying to maintain the support of his base.
James Wallner, a senior fellow at the R Street Institute, said this balancing act will be a challenge for Haley during the primary.
“She’s got to figure out how to be critical [of Trump], but not too critical,” said Wallner, who is also a lecturer at Haley’s alma mater Clemson University. “If she is ultimately successful, I think it will be in large part because she can navigate across those differences.”
Haley notably lacks the support of fellow South Carolinian Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Graham said Haley is a “great addition” to the Republican field on Tuesday, but he is backing Trump for re-election. His endorsement of the former president could be key ahead of next year’s South Carolina primary, which will likely also include the state’s other senator, Tim Scott (R-S.C.).
Scott has not officially announced his candidacy. However, all signs seem to point to him entering the race.
The senator is beginning a “listening tour” on Thursday in Charleston and will head to Iowa next week. He is also expected to participate in a presidential forum in South Carolina next month with Haley.
While Wallner said it’s too early to make projections about the South Carolina primary, he said having two politicians from the lowcountry presents an interesting dynamic.
“Scott doesn’t have as much experience as Haley does. He has a very compelling biography, [but] there’s a lot of ambiguity with Scott just because he doesn’t have a long record of accomplishments to point to. That can be a good thing or a bad thing,” Wallner said.
Despite the flurry of attention Haley received after she announced her candidacy, many consider her a longshot to win the nomination. But her influence is not negligible. New polling suggests she could actually be helping her former boss by swaying voters away from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is considered Republicans’ best bet to take down Trump in the primary.
A Yahoo News/YouGov poll released last week shows DeSantis leading Trump in a hypothetical head-to-head match-up, 45 percent to 41 percent. When Haley enters, Trump leads with 38 percent support to DeSantis’ 35 percent and Haley’s 11 percent.
“Any Republican getting in the race isn’t running against Donald Trump, they’re running against Ron DeSantis,” said one source close to Trump’s team, according to ABC News.
Some have argued that Haley’s 2024 narrative is tarnished because she succumbed to Trump in 2016.
Stuart Stevens who’s a former Republican consultant wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “Had she remained the Nikki Haley who warned her party about Mr. Trump in 2016, she would have been perfectly positioned to run in 2024 as its savior.”
Wallner pushed back on the notion that Republicans are looking for a savior and said Haley’s exposure to foreign policy under Trump actually makes her a stronger candidate.
“The fundamental reality is that the party is divided in many different ways, but a large part of that party still supports Trump,” Wallner said. “I don’t know how she could save a party that disagrees with the fact that it needs to be saved.”
Haley appeared to earn her first endorsement Wednesday from Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), who introduced Haley at her announcement event. Norman is a member of the House Freedom Caucus who called on Trump to invoke martial law to prevent Biden from becoming president.
She was also embraced on Wednesday by Katon Dawson, the former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party.
“When you underestimate Nikki Haley, you’re making a mistake,” Dawson said. “When she tells you something, you better believe it.”