Nikki Haley gaining momentum

Nikki Haley is seeing signs of growing support in her bid to be the main GOP primary alternative to former President Trump, with the Iowa caucuses less than two months away.

In the clearest sign yet of her newfound momentum, the Koch-affiliated Americans for Prosperity (AFP) Action endorsed Haley earlier this week, the first time a deep-pocketed outside group has backed a GOP candidate in the 2024 primary.

The endorsement gives Haley a leg up as she looks to topple Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) from his second-place perch. Still, skepticism remains over whether she ultimately has a real chance to beat Trump, who is still leading the GOP field by double digits in state and national polls, even as she strengthens her position with donors.

“The donors and the grassroots are not seeing the playing field the same way,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.

Earlier this month, Republican megadonor Ken Griffin said he was “actively contemplating” supporting Haley. Meanwhile, Haley revealed in an interview on CNBC that JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon called her to talk about the national debt, raising eyebrows about a possible future endorsement from him.

Haley and her supporters argued on Tuesday that the AFP’s endorsement will bolster her with the grassroots, given the Koch network’s resources. Haley said she was honored to have the group’s endorsement, noting its “missions of grassroots members all across the country.”

“Endorsements, they’re fine and they can show momentum and they certainly give you something to talk about, but there’s nothing really tangible,” said Doug Heye, a national Republican strategist. “But real money being spent targeting online and on TV in very important political markets, that’s significant.” 

It will be most significant in Iowa, where polls show Haley tied with DeSantis for second, and in New Hampshire, where she is running second behind Trump. 

“We’re seeing evidence in New Hampshire of a broader coalition that’s coming around behind her,” said New Hampshire GOP strategist Jim Merrill, pointing to Haley’s support from an array of Republican figures in the state, including former Senate candidate Don Bolduc.

“Having AFP behind her will only help in terms of getting her message out to more people more directly on doorsteps throughout the state,” Merrill said. 

The group’s backing will also boost her ground game in Iowa, which DeSantis’s team has made a top priority. 

“In Iowa, it’s important to know that momentum is crucial, but then to have the infrastructure, the grassroots resources to back up that momentum is important,” said David Kochel, an Iowa-based GOP strategist. “If AFP is known for anything, it’s that they’ve been really effective in their ground game, and if they put that to use for her, it’s going to be valuable.”

DeSantis’s campaign responded to the endorsement by calling it, essentially, an endorsement of Trump. 

“Like clockwork, the pro-open borders, pro-jail break bill establishment is lining up behind a moderate who has no mathematical pathway of defeating the former president,” DeSantis’s campaign communications director Andrew Romeo said in a statement posted on X, formerly Twitter. “Every dollar spent on Nikki Haley’s candidacy should be reported as an in-kind to the Trump campaign.” 

In a separate thread posted on X, the DeSantis campaign war room account cited an October NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom survey showing 67 percent of likely Republican caucusgoers in Iowa say they are considering both DeSantis and Trump. Fifty-four percent said they were considering Haley, which was up from 40 percent in August. 

“The DeSantis folks are much more America First,” O’Connell said, referring to the brand of conservatism touted by Trump. “The one thing that Nikki Haley doesn’t seem to demonstrate at least to the grassroots is that she understands the America First [message], which Vivek, Ron and Trump are talking about,” he added.

But Haley’s supporters point to AFP Action polling released Tuesday showing 34 percent of DeSantis’s supporters going to Haley in New Hampshire and 29 percent to Trump. In Iowa, the internal poll showed 38 percent of DeSantis’s support going to Haley and 35 percent to Trump. 

Haley has run an arguably broader campaign this cycle, while DeSantis has intentionally made Iowa a priority. DeSantis’s strategy runs through Iowa’s culturally conservative base, winning him the endorsements of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) and prominent Iowa evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats. 

“There’s no bigger endorsement in the country than the popular governor of the first state in the nation, so it’s a big deal,” Kochel said. “I do think it gave his campaign a real shot in the arm at a time they needed it.” 

“Vander Plaats is also important because traditionally in Iowa, which always breaks late, it’s broken toward a consensus candidate supported by evangelicals. Vander Plaats is a signal for that.” 

Still, Trump remains by and large the candidate to beat.

The same NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom survey showed Trump leading the field in Iowa with 43 percent support, with DeSantis and Haley tied for second place at 16 percent support. In New Hampshire, a CNN poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire earlier this month found Trump leads the primary field in the state with 42 percent, while Haley came in second at 20 percent support. A Fox News national poll showed Trump at 62 percent support among Republican primary voters, while DeSantis came in second at 14 percent. 

“At this juncture, Trump is still so far ahead of the rest of the field that it almost at this point doesn’t matter,” O’Connell said. 

However, others have pointed to the recent endorsements of Haley and DeSantis as an indication that the primary is not locked in for Trump at this point. 

“The Vander Plaats endorsement for DeSantis and AFP Action’s endorsing Haley show that there is a lot of baseball left to play,” said Dan Eberhart, a DeSantis donor. “Trump is going to have to earn this.” 

Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher (aka HP Pundit) is not a Democrat or Republican. He is a free thinking independent bringing you news and commentary with a dose of much needed common sense.

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