Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley may look like a long shot for the nomination next to former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis: Together, the two men have the support of more than two-thirds of GOP primary voters. Now, as she tries to distinguish herself from the two frontrunners, Haley has increasingly been trying to carve out her own lane by leaning into culture wars.
In a CNN town hall Sunday night, Haley staked out a distinct approach to issues including Ukraine, the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol, and federal benefits programs. And on the campaign trail recently, she’s started talking about her anti-abortion stance and embracing anti-trans rhetoric, seemingly moving away from her initial strategy of running as a moderate in a bid to meet Republican primary voters where they are right now.
“Nikki’s a professional chameleon. She is whatever she needs to be at that moment in time,” said Boyd Brown, a South Carolina Democratic strategist who previously served with Haley in the state legislature. “She’ll do whatever it takes to win an election, even if it’s selling out her true self, who might be a mainstream Republican.”
It’s still early in the 2024 campaign season, and Haley’s resume as Trump’s US ambassador to the United Nations and a former South Carolina governor gives her a weighty record to run on. Still, she has a lot of ground to make up: She’s polling at about 4 percent on average, in a distant third place behind Trump and DeSantis.
How Haley is contrasting herself with Trump and DeSantis
Like former Vice President Mike Pence, who entered the presidential race Monday, Haley is in the difficult position of having to distance herself from her former boss while refraining from alienating Republican voters who still overwhelmingly approve of him.
On Sunday, she did so by breaking with Trump on the Ukraine war, which he pledged to end within 24 hours of taking office if elected. Her stance puts her on firm footing with the grassroots. According to a May University of Chicago/NORC poll, 69 percent of Republican voters believe that Russia’s actions are an unjustified attempt to gain territory. She said in the town hall that this is a war “about freedom and it’s one we have to win” or else suffer even greater geopolitical consequences. She also said that the war is not a mere “territorial dispute,” referencing comments from DeSantis that he later walked back.
She also drew a red line on January 6. She called it “a terrible day” while dispelling Trump’s false conspiracy theories about 2020 election fraud, declaring that “President Biden is the president.”
She criticized Trump and DeSantis’s promises not to slash funding for Medicare and Social Security, claiming that they were not being realistic about cuts she deems necessary to keep the programs solvent. Haley’s position on the issue seems to be more about putting some distance between herself and the frontrunners than winning over voters: cuts are broadly unpopular, with 84 percent of Republicans against them, according to a March Axios/Ipsos poll. She supports reducing benefits for Americans currently in their 20s and limiting payouts for the wealthy.
However, she joined with Trump in criticizing DeSantis’s approach to his long-running feud with Disney over its opposition to his “Don’t Say Gay” law, which prevents teachers from talking about LGBTQ+ issues or people. She accused him Sunday of squandering public funds to take the fight to court. DeSantis has suffered loss after loss after loss in that fight, and his opponents on both the left and the right will likely continue to target him for it.
Haley is embracing the culture wars
Haley has historically eschewed culture wars, which she once said have “done nothing but to divide America.” And when she launched her campaign in February, she portrayed herself as a moderate who can win in a general election amid concerns about both Trump and DeSantis’s electability, calling for a “new generation of leadership.”
But recently, she’s been trending more MAGA than moderate. At a campaign event in May, she went on a rant against a trans influencer who partnered with Bud Light. That collaboration ultimately resulted in a widespread conservative boycott of the brand. Repeating anti-trans rhetoric during the town hall, she asked, “How are we supposed to get our girls used to the fact that biological boys are in their locker room? And then we wonder why a third of our teenage girls seriously contemplated suicide last year.”
She has also declared herself to be “unapologetically pro-life,” leaning into a hardline position that many Republicans believe caused them to underperform in the midterms and that Democrats predict will continue to prove potent in 2024. At the town hall, Haley suggested banning late-term abortions, incentivizing adoption, expanding access to contraceptives, and ensuring that women who have abortions are not criminalized. However, she has not committed to banning abortions after any particular point in pregnancy.
Brown expects that Haley will continue to turn to the right as she tries to siphon off some of Trump and DeSantis’s supporters.
“I bet she’s going to get in the far right lane at some point in the near future, just because she’s going to try to be relevant in the primary before she runs out of money,” he said. “She might not be in the Trump lane, but she’s probably going to be closer to Trump than Asa Hutchinson,” he added, referencing the former Arkansas governor and vocal Trump critic who announced his 2024 campaign in April.