Trump allies see Nikki Haley's 2024 campaign as encouraging sign of fractured primary field

Others aren't so sure facing multiple rivals is a boon to the former president.

February 15, 2023, 5:11 AM

While some of Donald Trump's allies publicly criticize Nikki Haley's decision to run against him in the 2024 Republican presidential primary, others are privately enthusiastic -- arguing that the more opponents he has in the race, the more likely he is to repeat his 2016 primary victory even if he again loses a majority of voters.

More specifically, these people contend, Haley and others running for the nomination can only weaken Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, seen by many as Trump's biggest potential challenger.

"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. "The best-case scenario for Haley is she exits the race as the runner-up to Donald Trump, but that will be at the expense of Ron DeSantis."

Haley, a former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in the Trump administration, on Tuesday officially announced her candidacy ahead of a more formal kickoff in Charleston on Wednesday.

She didn't mention Trump by name in her announcement video, but she invoked his and other GOP defeats.

"Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. That has to change," she said.

President Donald Trump meets with Nikki Haley, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations in the Oval office of the White House, Oct. 9, 2018.
Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

In response to her video, a spokesperson for Trump's political action committee, Taylor Budowich, called her "just another career politician" who "started out as a Never Trumper before resigning to serve in the Trump admin."

But a longtime Trump aide who is close to his 2024 team, who like others for this story was granted anonymity to speak candidly, said that Haley running could actually be good for Trump as long as she isn't the only rival. "It's hard to see Trump losing with even four semi-serious candidates in the race. Even three, I would bet Trump," the aide said. "You start getting beyond three to four candidates running, it's basically impossible for him to lose."

Other politicos aren't so sure.

"I'm not 100% certain that voters look at it that quite binary. Who's to say that Haley can't peel off some Trump people? The Trump people are not a monolithic bloc anymore," said John Thomas, who is running a pro-DeSantis super PAC.

And those around Haley also warn against discounting her.

"I think she's gonna be a formidable candidate with enough money and enough organization to get her own slice of the pie. Is it big enough to win the nomination? Time will tell," said former South Carolina GOP Chair Katon Dawson. "I think Nikki could be exactly what the Republican Party needs. She looks different. She is different. She's conservative. She's a woman from a very conservative state, been elected twice."

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Hilton Anatole on Aug. 06, 2022 in Dallas, Texas.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images, FILE

2024 primary a repeat of 2016?

Haley is now the third GOP nominee in the primary race, alongside Trump and long-shot candidate Steve Laffey, a former mayor of Cranston, Rhode Island.

High-profile names like South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and DeSantis are all considered likely contenders as well, which could morph the primary from a potentially staid affair into a crowded brawl.

Trump's aides and allies boast that the former president's popularity within the party, even if not dominant, is cemented -- and that the rest of the field will split up what's left, hurting DeSantis more than anyone.

Still, the arguments from Trump's allies about Haley belie that his standing has slipped since his time in the White House.

He faces increasing estrangement from others in his party, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and he faces multiple investigations though he denies wrongdoing in each.

"It's time for a new generation of leadership," Haley said in her announcement video.

She said she was unafraid of a fight: "You should know this about me -- I don't put up with bullies. And when you kick back, it hurts them more if you are wearing heels."

Polling shows many Republicans want someone other than Trump to be the 2024 nominee. But he didn't win a majority of voters in the 2016 race for the GOP nomination -- and still came out ahead of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who together won about 50% of votes. Trump got approximately 45%.

Ahead of the 2016 Republican National Convention, Trump shrugged off the risk of a fractured base.

"There would be something good about it, but I don't think [the party] actually has to be unified in the traditional sense," he told ABC "This Week" anchor George Stephanopoulos.

Trump, despite his controversies and political baggage, also still brings undeniable advantages to his 2024 bid, including virtually universal name recognition and a die-hard base that strategists and polls suggest is somewhere between 25% and 35% of the GOP.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a press conference to announce the award of $100 million for beach recovery following Hurricanes Ian and Nicole in Daytona Beach Shores in Florida, Jan. 18, 2023.
SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

A closer look at DeSantis, Haley

DeSantis has cultivated populist adoration as a prominent culture warrior and cruised to a nearly 20-point reelection in Florida. But, some critics note, he is largely untested on the national stage.

Trump allies insist DeSantis may be vulnerable.

His support is "very, very movable, whereas Trump's support is largely concrete and hard to see being moved by things like negative advertising," said the longtime Trump aide in touch with his campaign team. "Most polling shows DeSantis dominating with moderates, while Trump dominates with very conservative voters. In a larger primary field that includes people like [former Maryland Gov.] Larry Hogan, Nikki Haley and others, do you really think DeSantis is going to win 90% of the moderates?"

The source also predicted that Trump would avoid the brunt of the broadsides from the incoming contenders, indicating that any support he sheds would simply go to DeSantis so attacking the Florida governor first, before turning to Trump, would make more sense.

"I think the first domino needs to fall for the second and third domino to make sense," said one Trump 2016 campaign staffer who keeps in touch with his team.

DeSantis' backers, meanwhile, rebuff the claim that his support is squishy, pointing to the popularity of his policies among the GOP grassroots since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. A packed primary field could boost him, too, they say.

"I think Trump probably has a considerable amount of leaners in his direction right now," said Thomas, with the pro-DeSantis super PAC. "So, perhaps at the end of the day, it's useful to Gov. DeSantis to have more people in the race who aren't at parity with name ID or really threatening the majority of DeSantis' vote share but simply give credibility to the argument that Republican voters should be considering somebody other than Trump."

DeSantis' supporters also say he's "ready" for any arrows coming his way should candidates try to knock him down to get to Trump.

"Obviously, everyone sees Ron as the threat in that camp," one ally said. "I don't think he's surprised by that. I think he's ready for it. I don't think these people have a big enough microphone to cause him damage."

Nikki Haley, the former Governor of South Carolina and Ambassador to the UN, stumps for Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin during a campaign event in McLean, Va., July 14, 2021.
Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters, FILE

And though Haley has not been in office for several years, she was handily elected twice and now boasts both domestic and foreign policy experience from her time at the U.N.

However, even people who recognize her talent warn that her prospects could be complicated by Sen. Scott, her fellow South Carolinian -- a microcosm of the benefits a crowded field could afford Trump.

"I really believe that if she gets this race, she's a hometown girl, I think she'll win South Carolina. But on the other hand, I think if Tim Scott gets in this race, then Trump will probably take South Carolina because I think his base is going to stay with him. I don't think she can pull his base," said Clarendon County GOP Chair Moye Graham.

David Kochel, an Iowa-based GOP strategist who is a veteran of several presidential campaigns, said a long list of candidates could scramble Trump's traditional campaign strategy.

"It might make him less likely to start attacking somebody so they can't get any traction. He's going to benefit [from] a larger field, all of whom have some support that can be distributed across a big field," Kochel said. "He doesn't want to drive people out of the race so that there's only a two- or three- or four-person race because I think that is to his detriment."

Others said they expect Trump to reprise his role as election brawler regardless of the repercussions.

"I'm sure that the president is gonna shoot those arrows at everybody. It's just in his nature. He took 16 apart the first time he ran, one after the other," said Dawson, referencing Trump's 2016 primary run. "I think it's gonna go dead in the gutter, just dead slap in the gutter when this thing's over, and let's see who comes out and takes a shower first."

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