Nikki Haley was in Iowa over a week ago for the launch of her “Women for Nikki” campaign. I always find it amusing when candidates hold events at the aptly named Temple of Performing Arts in Des Moines, but Haley’s performance was among the best political performances I’ve ever seen at the venue–and I’ve seen dozens in nearly 20 years. When it was over she drew a standing ovation from the crowd of maybe 80 women and a handful of men.
With a blue background behind alternating Iowa and U.S. Flags, maybe 15 women sat behind Haley in a show of support as she addressed the audience. I don’t know who these women are, but I think I know these women. We have a great number of them in rural Iowa, where I live. For the most part, they run the place. While juggling one or more jobs or small businesses and coordinating their kids’ activities, they still have time to volunteer in the community and maybe even teach Sunday School.
I’ve seen lots of presidential candidates in the Iowa caucuses over the years, but I don’t believe I have seen a candidate blend so seamlessly into their audience. Haley is clearly one of these women.
Before her speech was over, I realized that there are two natural “lanes” for Haley in the 2024 primaries; women and foreign policy. And if women, like the women who were in the room that day, get behind her and work their networks, she has a real shot at the nomination. And if all Americans see the need for someone who truly is able to see our role on the world stage, she has an even better shot.
Her backstory is pure Hollywood. Challenges, trials, tribulations, mentors, gatekeepers, and, finally, victory when she became governor of South Carolina. Up on the stage, however, much of her presentation was Republican boilerplate: Biden bad. Economy bad. Wokeness bad. Entitlements bad. Public education bad. Border bad…
Yawn. But she has to touch all of these bases, and several points she made were different than most Republican stump speeches I hear. First, transgender TikTok influencer Dylan Mulvaney has apparently emerged as social enemy number one.
“You have this man, dressed up like a girl, making fun of women.” Haley said. “That’s what this is. And you have companies glorifying this person? What are we doing? Who’s going to fight for our girls?”
She spoke of biological boys competing against girls in sports. Haley told the women in the room that this is the “women’s issue of our times.”
If Iowans believe girls’ sports are in peril, they will fight to protect them. As far as I can tell Democrats have no angle on the possible impact on girls’ sports other than to generally offer support for our trans friends and family members.
Haley also spoke differently than any other Republican I have heard about abortion, saying there is a middle ground, and that pro-choice and pro-life opponents need to figure it out.
She said she was “pro-life,” but she doesn’t judge anyone who is pro-choice any more than those who share her view. “What I mean is this is a personal issue for women and for men…it needs to be treated with the respect that it should. I don’t want unelected judges deciding something this personal.”
“We’re not going to let this be a political football,” Haley said. “Let’s let the states work this out. If Congress decides to do it, don’t enter that game of them saying, ‘How many weeks? How many weeks?’ No, let’s first figure out what we agree on, and then move forward.”
Of course, Haley doesn’t want abortion to be a political football–it’s a losing proposition for Republicans. While some in the party might hold her position against Haley, most of the women in the room were nodding in agreement. Haley seems pragmatic. These women are pragmatic. After all, there were women in the room who likely have had abortions. If not, then they have had family members or friends who have had them. As many Republican politicians today try to compete to prove they are the most pro-life, including wanting to criminalize women and doctors for conducting the procedure, Haley’s approach seems more nuanced, more in line with how many Americans think.
Haley showed her more independent streak when she had harsh words for Republicans, highlighting men in the South Carolina Legislature who stood in her way on issues of transparency, accountability, and more. She said federal spending is out of control, and that Republicans are as much responsible as Democrats.
She also made a pitch for a woman to be in the White House. “Women get things done,” she told them. “Women are incredible when it comes to balancing. We know how to prioritize; regardless of what people say, we don’t like the drama, and we are about results.”
Haley also gave a powerful foreign policy statement. She knows all of the players and the international dynamics. She gave a full throated endorsement of U.S. support of Ukraine in its war against Russia. Some Republicans in Congress getting weak kneed in continued support of Ukraine will find her on the other side of the issue. So will probable foe Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who called it a “territorial dispute,” before walking it back.
Haley speaks from experience, telling us that during her time in the UN, we had no better friend and ally than Ukraine. That they always voted with us, and that it’s a freedom loving country. She told the crowd that this isn’t about Russia and Ukraine. It’s about freedom, and if Russia wins, every authoritarian regime in the world will be emboldened.
This is Haley’s second “lane.” She has powerful messages on both that will resonate.
Haley has received much criticism for her relationship with Donald Trump, and changing her positions on a variety of issues. None of this will likely matter in the Iowa Republican caucuses. The entire Republican party has issues with their relationships with Donald Trump, and likely will until the last insurrectionists are in their graves. Commentators critical of her today are writing for each other and the history books, not the caucus-going public.
What might matter, even though it shouldn’t, are questions about her faith. Raised Sikh, some say her decision to convert to Christianity was a political one. Bob Vander Plaats, President of the CEO of the Family Leader, an evangelical Christian group, who has considerable political influence in Iowa, has distanced himself from Trump, which is significant. The endorsement of the Family Leader will influence a great many Republican caucus goers. Haley may not be Christian-enough for them, which is unfortunate. There shouldn’t be a religious standard to hold political office. But that’s not the Republican view. Here, Iowa legislators regularly tell constituents they govern from a “Biblical” perspective. Gossip abounds in our small towns about who is the “better” Christian.
Early money is on the Family Leader endorsing Haley’s fellow South Carolinian, Senator Tim Scott, who is Black. In part because of his faith, and in part because evangelical Republicans are tired of being called racists. Haley checks the race box too, so we’ll see what the think of her faith. And who they think can beat Biden.
Polling and pundits give Haley little chance. I did too, before I saw her work the room and heard her message.
A FiveThirtyEight 2024 Republican Party primary poll published April 12 provides the following numbers of approval: former President Donald Trump (49.3%), Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (26.2%), former Vice President Mike Pence (5.8%) and Haley (4.3%).
Pollsters know that these numbers don’t really mean anything other than as a starting point. Iowa Republicans are pragmatic. While Trump polls strongly, if it’s perceived he can’t beat Joe Biden because few beyond his base will caucus for him. Trump is in serious legal trouble, and it’s only going to get worse. Trump didn’t win Iowa in 2016; the evangelical favorite Ted Cruz did. Pundits are acting like DeSantis has already lost his luster. I saw DeSantis earlier this year at the Iowa State Fairgrounds before a crowd of over 1,000 people. These Iowa Republicans loved him. DeSantis is by no means out, no matter what anyone says. I watched Pence speak to a room of about 60 a few weeks ago. If the event hadn’t been hosted by Senator Joni Ernst, I doubt he could have fielded a baseball team with the crowd that would have come.
Among the announced candidates, right now it looks like that opening might be for Nikki Haley or Tim Scott or for someone who hasn’t even entered the race. If either of them comes strong out of New Hampshire or Iowa, their home state of South Carolina could decide the race. But of course Trump still looms over everything.
During her “Women for Haley” event. Haley didn’t mention Trump directly, but did so obliquely.
“It’s more than just the caucus; we have to elect someone who can win the general election. That requires a new generational leader. That requires leaving the baggage, the drama, and the status quo of the past, and say that we got to move forward and take on these new issues with none of that distraction. That’s what that will take, and the way you do that is you send a badass Republican woman to the White House.”
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