Republicans with Oval Office dreams have learned to think twice about challenging Donald Trump, hoping for a magical moment when the former president has his guard down and their candidacy can be launched without making themselves a punching bag. But Nikki Haley is not waiting anymore.
The former South Carolina governor who served as ambassador to the United Nations in Trump’s administration plans to announce her bid for the presidency on Feb. 15, the South Carolina Post and Courier first reported.
A source familiar with Haley’s thinking confirmed the news Tuesday night to RealClearPolitics. A spokesman for Haley, meanwhile, declined to comment. But the White House bid has long been expected, and she will likely become the first to challenge Trump as the remainder of a potentially crowded field prefers the relative safety of a shadow primary.
The field has been slow to take shape with the exception of Trump, who declared late last year in a speech that was more of a formality given his constant teasing about a third presidential campaign. The former South Carolina governor has been sending supporters an invitation to an event in downtown Charleston for a “special announcement.”
This comes after Haley told Bret Baier of Fox News that she believes she is cut out to be president. “When you are looking at a run for president, you look at two things," Haley told Baier. "You first look at does the current situation push for new leadership? The second question is, am I that person that could be that new leader? Yes, we need to go in a new direction."
"Can I be that leader?” she asked. “Yes, I think I can be that leader.”
Can she build a campaign capable of surpassing Trump? She apparently believes the answer is also yes: Haley has spent the last three years cobbling together a political machine designed to get her off to a fast start. Shortly after leaving the administration, as RCP was first to report, she poached Tim Chapman, then head of Heritage Action, to run her conservative policy group Stand for America. More recently, a number of her staff have relocated to Charleston in anticipation of the race.
Haley may enjoy an inherent geographical advantage. Before joining the Trump administration, becoming the first ever Indian American in a presidential cabinet, she served three terms as a South Carolina representative in Congress, where she developed a reputation as a fiscal hawk. On the strength of her conservative credentials, and with the endorsement of populist rock stars such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Haley rode the Tea Party wave into the governor’s mansion. She defeated her Democratic opponent 51-47% in 2010. Four years later, Haley nearly tripled that margin while winning a second term.
“I have said for a long time, if there's a place for me, and I put my hat in,” she told Baier. “I have never lost a race. I'm not going to start now.”
A victory at home there could boost her chances, while an early defeat would almost certainly doom her campaign. Republican circles were buzzing with speculation Tuesday night, not all of it positive. “In business, they call this the first mover advantage,” a prominent GOP official texted RCP as the Haley news broke. “In politics, they call it a plea for relevancy.”
But Haley is uniquely positioned even as she prepares to challenge her old boss. She was one of the few alums of the Trump administration without scandal and with the former president’s blessing. Sitting side-by-side with his ambassador to the UN in the Oval Office, Trump called Haley “a fantastic person” who “very importantly” also “is somebody that gets it.”
An early hurdle for Haley will be explaining why she previously said she wouldn’t challenge Trump. When Baier put that question to her, the former diplomat replied that “the survival of America matters” and was “bigger than one person.”
“And when you're looking at the future of America, I think it's time for new generational change. I don't think you need to be 80 years old to go be a leader in D.C.” she added. “I think we need a young generation to come in, step up, and really start fixing things.”
Haley turned 51 last month. For his part, her 76-year-old former boss has told reporters he wishes her well. “She called me and said she’d like to consider it, and I said you should do it,” Trump recently told reporters during his own tour of the state. He volunteered that he told Haley to “go by your heart if you want to run.”
Haley has emerged as a vocal critic of President Biden on foreign policy and a dedicated China hawk. She called for a U.S. boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, condemning China’s treatment of the Uyghur Muslims during an interview with RCP as “something straight out of George Orwell” and calling out American corporations on Wall Street who “fall over themselves to help a communist country.”
During that same interview, Haley blasted Biden’s handling of the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan for emboldening Russian President Vladimir Putin and paving the way for the invasion of Ukraine.
Adversaries saw “the perfect opportunity” to move against American interest, Haley told RCP, during “the weakest president in American history. They know that Biden won’t last. They know he won't be here forever.” Next month, the former ambassador begins the process of trying to remove him, and she will argue, to restore American standing abroad.