Most State of the Union responses take direct aim at the sitting President, criticizing him for his leadership and agenda. But Nikki Haley’s speech last night had a second target: the "angriest voices" in her own party.
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The South Carolina Governor said her remarks were at least partially aimed at presidential frontrunner Donald Trump – an attack that got the attention of Republican insiders gathered for their winter meeting in her home state.
For the most part, Republican National Committee members were buzzing with accolades for the 43-year-old governor’s performance – and boosting talk of her as a potential vice-presidential pick. And while they agreed with her call to a more civil tone of discourse, they were hesitant to target the real estate mogul.
“I don’t know if it was necessarily beneficial,” Saul Anuzis, a former RNC member from Michigan, told ABC News, adding that it’s early to be worrying about the general election. “She has every right to express her opinion. She’s a leader in the party.”
“I think some people are looking at the tone and the rhetoric you’re seeing today and are worried about the general,” he said. “But we’re not at that stage yet. We’re still firing up the base.”
And while Utah Republican chair James Evans agreed with Haley on toning down the rhetoric, he told ABC News that the issue is broader than one candidate.
“It’s larger than just Donald Trump: it’s about a way to be engaged in politics,” he said. “It set the tone also for how we have to be straightforward and honorable in our engagement. She called out what we haven’t been doing,” he said.
Haley made this same point today, pointing out areas in which she disagrees with Jeb Bush on common core and Marco Rubio on immigration. Still, Trump has stood out from the other Republican candidates for his pointed attacks on immigrants and Muslims over the course of the campaign.
Arkansas’ Jonelle Flumer didn’t have a problem with the jabs, but speculated to ABC News about the potential fallout. “I don’t mind her pushing back,” she said. “I guess we’ll wait and see if that helps or hurts, because he seems to always come out on top.”
But more conservative wings of the party – including influential talk radio hosts – were more upset about Haley’s comments.
“It's the first time in my life I can remember the response to the State of the Union not going after the president but rather going off the front-runner of, in this case, her own party,” said Rush Limbaugh. “I don't think I've ever seen that before.”