Nikki Haley Has Spent 20 Years Navigating Republican Party Factions. Trump May Make That Impossible

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley listens to students during a campaign stop at the Polaris Charter School, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley listens to students during a campaign stop at the Polaris Charter School, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
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When Nikki Haley was a South Carolina legislator, she backed budgets boosted by federal aid. Running for governor, she criticized a “bailout culture” and dependence on Washington.

She once called the Confederate battle flag a heritage symbol and sidestepped calls to remove it from statehouse grounds. After a racist massacre in Charleston, Haley moved to take it down.

When Donald Trump ran for president in 2016, she opposed him before joining his administration as U.N. ambassador. Now, Haley is running against Trump for the 2024 Republican nomination saying he is an agent of chaos.

For almost 20 years, Haley has worked to navigate Republicans' rightward march, trying to cultivate both the GOP establishment and the firebrand conservative base that gave rise to Trump. She is seen as either a pragmatic unifier or a finger-to-the-wind politician, and as she seeks the Republican nomination, her political pivots have become her opponents' most persistent line of attack.

“Maybe she can be a bit of a chameleon,” said former state Rep. Doug Brannon, a fellow Republican. “The governor and I did not get along,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean that she isn’t a brilliant politician.”

Shapeshifting is a long-practiced political art. Bill Clinton earned the nickname “Slick Willie” and won two terms in the White House. Trump went from being emphatically supportive of abortion rights to telling voters he alone was responsible for the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, winning over white evangelicals.

In the 2024 campaign, Haley has leaned into her critics. Trump skipping debates has meant she and the former president have not confronted each other face to face but she has forcefully defended herself against his suggestions that she is out of step with today's Republican Party.

“For those reporting that I’m a moderate, I will ask you or anybody, Trump or anybody in Fox (News) suits saying that I’m not a conservative: Name one thing that I wasn’t conservative about,” she said Friday in New Hampshire.

She offered a litany of measures she signed as governor to lower taxes, boost voter identification requirements and overhaul public employee pensions, among other matters. “The difference is who is deciding who’s conservative and who’s moderate,” she said.

Rob Godfrey, who served in Haley’s administration, said she “has never been an angry candidate or angry in governing” but relishes “using the bully pulpit.”

“She prides herself on being willing to call out people she thinks are not serving their constituents well,” Godfrey said. He insisted his old boss is less concerned about positioning and ideology than achieving the most conservative, “good government” policy outcome possible.

“That approach rubs some people the wrong way,” Godfrey said. “It always has.”

Haley, 52, was first elected to the South Carolina legislature from a suburban Columbia district 20 years ago. The daughter of Indian immigrants, she defeated a 30-year legislative veteran in the Republican primary. She once told The New York Times that Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ 2016 presidential nominee, had inspired her to run for office.

Haley quickly rose to a leadership post but collided with colleagues over her push for more recorded votes instead of voice votes that spared lawmakers scrutiny. So she soon aimed for the executive branch. She joined a 2010 gubernatorial primary that included the lieutenant governor, attorney general and a sitting congressman. Haley nearly won the nomination outright, with 48.9% of the primary vote. Haley defeated U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett in a runoff 65% to 35%.

Whit Ayres, a national pollster who worked for Barrett, said the campaign previewed Haley's ability to cast a wide net. “Those margins tell you something about her political skills,” he said.

In the legislature, Haley voted to take millions of dollars in federal aid during the financial crisis of 2008-09 to keep the American financial system from collapsing and sending the country into a possible depression.

By 2010, though, there was rising anger about the impact that crisis had on Americans who lost their homes or saw their retirement accounts dwindle as Wall Street titans were rarely held responsible. That gave birth to the tea party, which stoked fires of populism that propelled Trump six years later. Gubernatorial candidate Haley railed against bailouts and trumpeted an endorsement from Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice presidential nominee and tea party favorite.

“When Sarah Palin showed up, that was a turning point,” Ayres said. “We knew then she was for real.”

Haley paired her Palin endorsement with another from the more moderate Mitt Romney as he geared up for his second presidential bid. She later endorsed Romney in the 2012 Republican presidential primary. In 2014, she expanded her first general election margin to win a second term with 56% of the vote.

“She’s managed to be all things to all people,” said Kay Koonce, a Democratic National Committee member from South Carolina who acknowledged that Haley's success had frustrated her party.

As governor, Haley had disputes with fellow Republicans that often seemed personal. She vetoed spending measures and threatened to campaign against party members in their primaries. Conservative opponents seized on disclosures that she worked during her time as a legislator for a Columbia-area hospital system that had regulatory requests before state government. She faced ethics charges that were dismissed by a committee dominated by House Republicans.

She successfully courted business investment in the state, including some from China. To recruit firms, she backed subsidies some tea party adherents detested. But she reminds Republican primary voters that the deals were always for non-union shops.

She also made a mark on social issues, signing a 2016 measure outlawing abortions at 20 weeks with exceptions. That would not satisfy many in the GOP’s national base now. But Haley has argued against a stricter national ban and said the sound conservative position is to leave the issue to state governments.

Haley burnished her conservative persona beyond policy debates. She told her Instagram followers in December 2013 that she got a handgun for Christmas. “I must have been good Santa gave me a Beretta PX4 Storm,” she posted.

Godfrey, who still maintains contact with Haley, said the best example of her approach came after a white supremacist in 2015 killed eight Black worshippers at a Charleston church. Haley had previously said removing the Confederate battle flag from Capitol grounds was not a priority. After the shooting, she quickly convened multiracial, bipartisan conversations that led to the Civil War banner finally being taken down. “She was giving cover” to Republican legislators, Godfrey said, and “building consensus."

Koonce countered: “She deserves some of the credit” but that “should not erase what she had said before it took all those people dying to do the right thing.”

As Haley's own ambitions broadened beyond South Carolina, she, like so many Republicans, had to figure out how to run against Trump.

In 2016, she delivered the Republican response to President Barack Obama’s last State of the Union address. Weighing her party’s rightward push, Haley complimented Obama as a barrier breaker and communicator. She urged Republicans to accept shared responsibility for the nation’s problems. And she warned conservatives: “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation.” She didn’t name Trump but soon endorsed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

After Trump's November victory, she was at Trump Tower in New York talking to the president-elect about jobs.

Early in her 2024 campaign, Haley stepped lightly around Trump. But on the eve of the first contests, her criticisms have become more direct, on issues like Trump's role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

“I think what happened on Jan. 6 was a terrible day, and I think President Trump will have to answer for it,” she said on a debate stage Wednesday in Iowa. It was perhaps as far as she has gone in criticizing Trump.

Haley has separately confirmed that she will vote for the Republican nominee; she has not ruled out joining Trump on the ticket as his running mate.

Ayres said Haley’s approach is pragmatic, like much of her career. About half the party’s voters, Ayres said, voted for Trump twice and would again – but are open to someone else.

“Following Chris Christie’s lead would cap her at the small percentage of ‘Never Trumpers,’” Ayres added, referring to the former New Jersey governor who hammered Trump before dropping out of the race.

Christie was caught on a hot mic predicting Haley “is going to get smoked” by Trump. On that, even a Democrat sided with Haley.

“Chris Christie is exactly right about Trump,” Koonce said. “But I’m sitting there listening to him criticize her again and I’m thinking, ‘Well, she’s the one who’s still on the stage.’”

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Associated Press writer Holly Ramer in Concord, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.