Nikki Haley voted for Donald Trump, praised him and worked in his administration.
Now, South Carolina’s former governor is trying to replace him as the GOP’s new leader.
Haley will announce Wednesday from Charleston that she is running for president in 2024, launching a White House campaign after serving six years as South Carolina’s governor and nearly two years as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations. If victorious, she would be the first woman — and first person of Indian descent — to be the GOP’s presidential nominee.
But first, Haley has to persuade rank-and-file Republican voters that she’s a better presidential option than a former president who was, until recently, her boss, and someone whom in 2021 she vowed to not run against.
It’s an unusual and potentially awkward dynamic — and one Republicans say could potentially both help her among voters eager to re-embrace Trump’s policy agenda (if not the man himself) or damage her reputation among those who perceive her as disloyal.
“Nikki created her own biggest problem by saying publicly that she wasn’t going to run against Trump,” said John Bolton, who served as Trump’s national security adviser and is considering a GOP presidential bid of his own. “And now saying that circumstances have changed isn’t very convincing.”
Bolton was referencing a Fox News interview with Haley last month, in which she said “a lot has changed” since her promise in 2021 not to run against Trump, citing the country’s high inflation and the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. The former ambassador has said she thinks the country needs a “new generation” of leadership, a not-so-veiled criticism of both Democratic President Joe Biden’s age (80) and Trump’s (76).
Trump himself has, by his standards, taken it easy on his former appointee, saying earlier this month that she had decided to “follow her heart, not her honor.”
But Haley is also far from the only potential candidate in 2024 who worked in the Trump administration. Trump’s former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his former Vice President Mike Pence are also widely seen as likely White House hopefuls next year. And even potential candidates who didn’t hold a job in the Trump White House, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have relied on his help to get elected or effusively praised him in the past.
Trump is seeking to become the first man to return to the presidency after first losing re-election in more than 125 years, creating a situation some GOP strategists call unprecedented for the entire field of candidates.
“Her position is not unique among the field,” said Alex Stroman, a veteran GOP strategist in South Carolina. “And the reason it’s not unique in the field is because it’s logical that any person running for the Republican nomination would campaign for, endorse and possibly work for the last Republican president of the United States.”
Among people close to Haley, Trump’s criticism is expected but not considered a serious threat. The fact that Trump appointed Haley to a key foreign policy post in the first place should give her cover with voters, one ally contended, while arguing that the former president is more focused on disparaging DeSantis at the moment anyway.
The Florida governor has risen to the top of some early 2024 polls, despite not yet publicly deciding whether he’ll run for president, and his surge of support has already attracted Trump’s attention.
Other Haley supporters say the party, which has won the popular vote during a presidential election only once since 1992, is more invested in finding a winning candidate than relitigating who served under whom during the last GOP president, especially after a disappointing 2022 midterm election that saw the party fail to capture a majority in the U.S. Senate.
“We’re all torn up, busted up,” said Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina GOP chairman and Haley supporter. “Our expectations for the midterms were not met.”
Surveys of the 2024 GOP primary indicate a majority of GOP voters prefer either Trump or DeSantis at this early stage in the race, with Haley struggling to escape single-digit support. A Monmouth University poll released last week found the former governor receiving only 1% support, with Trump and DeSantis each receiving 33% support from GOP voters.
The survey did find, however, that a plurality of voters, 47%, hold a favorable view of Haley, compared to 11% who view her disfavorably. Forty-one percent of Republicans didn’t know enough about her to hold an opinion.
As GOP voters learn more about Haley, some conservative leaders say the role she played in the Trump administration could ultimately prove an asset, especially among GOP voters eager to find a candidate who can duplicate the former president’s policies while bringing less political baggage to the table.
“They’re going to tout the successes they achieved within the administration, because Donald Trump ran the administration like a CEO and empowered the people underneath him,” said Dave Wilson, president of the Palmetto Family Council, an influential social conservative group in South Carolina. “They were great for the boss. The question becomes whether they can build off the success they had in the administration to say they have it in them to step into the CEO of America position.”
Trump, Wilson added, has the advantage of name recognition and the fact he once held the very job he’s running for.
“What everybody else has is they actually made things happen in his administration,” he said, saying both Pence and Pompeo could also take advantage.
Other critics question whether some GOP voters would prefer a cleaner break from the past. Bolton, who has been vocally and frequently critical of his old boss since leaving the White House in 2019, argued anyone who’s been reluctant to lambaste the former president won’t be the fresh start from Trump the party needs.
“You’ve gotta get other people who believe that the next Republican nominee should not be a clone of Trump,” Bolton said.