SALIX, Iowa—Everyone in the audience here laughed when Nikki Haley took credit for bringing good weather with her on an unseasonably warm April evening, and then as the sun started to set in the watercolor-painted sky, she turned their attention to everything wrong about America right now.
In her telling, this meant a nation embarrassed abroad, a country lacking confidence at home, a people unmoored from the ideals that once made them great. According to Haley, the economy is no good, enemies like China are up to no good, and in the last three years the White House hasn’t done anything good. “You feel it in your wallet. You feel it at your kid’s school. You feel it around town,” she said beneath a giant American flag hanging from the rafters of the Port Neal Welding company. “It’s bad.”
The machine shop was swept clean, while forklifts and rolled steel and every kind of welding rig had been shoved into all the corners of the massive pole barn to make room for nearly a hundred folding chairs and the South Carolina Republican running for president. Just about every seat was taken.
“I’ll tell you what I told South Carolinians when I became governor,” Haley continued before laying out in broad brushstrokes all the ways she plans to fix the economy, the schools, and the country. “No more whining, no more complaining. Now we get to work.”
The former ambassador to the United Nations has flown to Iowa “more times than I can even count,” and the latest swing comes as Haley tries to draw a contrast with the frontrunner in the race, her old boss, the recently arraigned former president. And the diplomat was blunt.
“There’s a lot of people that are looking at who can win a primary,” she told one voter during the town hall, “but if you’re not looking at who can win a general, you’re gonna get four more years of what you’ve got right now. And you’re gonna have a heart attack because you’ll be so upset.”
“The polls you see today are not the polls you will see a year from now,” she added, saying it was time the GOP accepted “a hard truth” that something was wrong when a party keeps losing the national popular vote. She seemed to warn the other candidates, “you can’t outwork me,” while promising voters, “I will do what it takes to earn your support.”
The vow to hustle is welcome in rural Iowa. “We do an honest day’s work from manufacturing to agriculture to our main streets,” freshman Rep. Randy Feenstra said as he pointed to the fertilizer facilities and packing plants visible on the horizon before disappearing to prepare to introduce the ambassador. An old flatbed truck, tucked out of sight behind the welding shop, was parked just as if it were there to prove Haley’s point that victory could come from sheer grit and willpower.
Someone had scrawled on its tailgate in chalk, “The harder ya work, the luckier you’ll get.” Next to that message on the bumper of the dented GMC: a faded Trump sticker.
The first presidential primary debate is four months away. The Iowa caucuses, nine. Looking in on the country from outside in the Washington Beltway, some have already concluded that it’s too late and that the primary is already two-man race. Trump has more than ten times the support for Haley in the RealClearPolitics average. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who hasn’t yet declared, leads the former ambassador by a factor of six.
Haley replies to those numbers with an unrelenting faith in the power of retail politics, telling RCP during an interview between campaign stops Tuesday that of the declared candidates: “I’m the only one working in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina touching hands, answering questions, doing town halls.” The landscape looks similar to her first run for statewide office, when the little-known candidate dismissed as “Nikki Who?” bested a crowded field in South Carolina to become Gov. Haley in 2010. “It’s what I’ve always done,” she said pointing back to that campaign. “There are no shortcuts to winning.”
She predicted that candidates with bigger war chests, “those that think money will save them” as well as others “who think they can come in and do a rally then leave will be sorely mistaken.” Haley doesn’t do the one-and-done mega-rally, although she easily attracted solid audiences throughout the state for a weekday. And Haley certainly isn’t hurting for money.
She points to $11 million reasons her campaign can go the distance. That’s the dollar haul of her first quarter of fundraising, a number higher than nearly every 2016 candidate at this point in that race and more than Donald Trump raised this year. That initial success validated her decision to enter the race early as other potential candidates, most of them male, watch from the sidelines. It also cemented an unofficial mantra among her staff: “She who dares, wins.”
But the first big contribution wasn’t a check. It was an unintentional, viral in-kind contribution from Don Lemon of CNN who said on air that the 51-year-old Haley was “not in her prime.” Roundly ridiculed for his remarks, the liberal pundit eventually apologized for saying that women were in “their prime in 20s and 30s and maybe 40s” – but not until the Haley campaign had reaped a fundraising bonanza courtesy of Lemon’s sexist gaffe.
Haley never got a call from Lemon to apologize. She doesn’t mind. “I’m going to make the most of any opportunity,” she told RCP of the incident that culminated with her campaign quickly rolling out merch, including beer koozies that read, “Past my prime? Hold my beer.”
“Liberals heads have always exploded at the thought of me running for anything,” she explained matter-of-factly. If anything, the kerfuffle was confirmation. “There’s a reason that the second I announce, Whoopi Goldberg, Don Lemon, and the liberals all started attacking me. Because I take away their narrative.”
“They don’t understand how a minority female would be Republican,” she continued. “So when you look at that, I know that means that I’m winning. I know they see it as a threat.”
Some veteran Republicans don’t see her fundraising success as a blip. One political operative affiliated with another campaign told RCP that kind of money proves there is a lane for Trump-friendly opponents to pull off what was previously thought to be impossible: critiquing the former president from the right. “That message is resonating, which is ‘Hey, we liked Donald Trump, but … we think it’s time for someone new,’” he said.
That’s Hale’s hope, but if the polls are right, grassroots Republicans are – at this point – more like Dan Lee, the soft-spoken owner of the welding shop in Salix who delayed planting his bean fields to make his building available to the Haley campaign Monday night. He liked Trump from the beginning and still does. “But if she ends up winning, then more power to her,” he said. “I mean, I don’t care as long as the country gets turned around.”
“The further we get from ‘In God We Trust,’ the further we get away from freedom. And that’s going the wrong way right now,” Lee added. Of particular concern to Lee is the roiling national discussion over transgender issues. Lee told RCP that he doesn’t understand why schools should be forced to cater to a small minority of LGBTQ students, adding that at his Lutheran church “our girls still wear dresses, and our boys still wear suits and ties, when they sing.”
“This probably is not the right thing to say either,” he added somewhat sheepishly, “but our Christian values, like the family, are going out the window. But not here in the Midwest. And I’d like to keep it that way. That’s why I do things like this, and [serve on] the school board, to keep it American and Christian.”
At an Italian restaurant in Crawford County the next day, Haley echoes that message almost exactly. “Do you remember when you were growing up what it felt like?” she asked the Denison Federation of Republican Women. “How simple it was? How good it was? It was about faith, family and country.” Marrying nostalgia with optimism, Haley tells the decidedly senior luncheon crowd that “we could have that again. Don’t you want that again?”
Sentimentality has its limits though. Haley appreciates the past. But she doesn’t want to return to recent history or even think that’s a possibility.
“He’s living in the past, and the past is catching up with him in a way that it is causing drama,” she replied when RCP asked if her exhortation against complaining applied to Trump. “And I think it’s been politicized. He’s been abused – the way that he has been treated in office and out of office is wrong,” she added in reference to his most recent legal troubles. “But the American people need to go forward.”
Those same voters, she added, “get the fact that this could be challenging for him to win a general.”
Haley considers Trump “a friend” and says she “was proud to serve in his administration.” But times have changed, and for the good of the nation so must the Republican nominee. “We have to move forward. We can’t deal with the drama that’s following him. We can’t deal with the baggage,” she explained. “We’ve got a country to save.”
A spokesman for the Trump campaign countered, “Take a look at the polling and how President Trump is by far the overwhelming choice for Republicans (in the primary) and for all Americans (the general). It’s clear who the most ‘electable’ candidate is.”
Voters in Iowa are still deciding whether to split with the former president. Meanwhile, almost everyone here talks like they are on a first name basis with the former diplomat. “I call her Nikki,” Sen. Joni Ernst said by way of introduction in Crawford County. “It’s hard not to – she’s just an incredibly lovely person and an incredible human being.”
Cindy Dozark doesn’t bother with titles either. The retired nurse wants to vote for a Republican who “will not waver on whatever new PC there is.” Before the luncheon starts, she says that “from what I’ve seen so far, Nikki sounds like that kind of person.” A self-described social and fiscal conservative, Dozark worries her party is losing the war over federal spending and the culture war over traditional values. On the transgender issue, she said, elected Republicans are giving ground to “a very small number of people with very loud voices.”
Haley agrees, calling it “the women’s issue of our time, and no one is talking about it like that.” Then, rapid fire, one by one, she hops from contentious subject to subject.
When a voter complains that she didn’t call out the rioting that followed the Black Lives Matter protests as strongly as the Jan. 6, 2021 mob at the U.S. Capitol, Haley roundly condemns violence of any kind, criticizes the Biden administration for having “different rules for different people” in their enforcement of the law, and then concludes, “If you break the law, you go to jail. It’s that simple.”
She earns applause for her benevolence on a budget, saying that the United States should supply military, not financial, aid in the face of Russian aggression. No to dollars: “I don’t think we need to put any money in the Ukrainians’ pockets.” Yes to bullets: “We give them the equipment and the ammunition they need.”
Fiscal austerity in domestic policy is another matter – it’s hardly ever popular – but Haley handles the question of Social Security matter-of-factly. “We do have to do entitlement reform. That’s the hard truth,” she tells the room. Her approach? Don’t touch the benefits of seniors who have paid in already, but reform the system for younger, newer workers. “They are the ones we go to and tell the game has changed.”
Dozark liked what she heard. As she waited to shake Haley’s hand after the luncheon wrapped up, the nurse who supported former Gov. Scott Walker in 2016, explained, “It’s like she said, we can’t just accept that we are going over a cliff. We have to have courage and believe we can turn the country around.”
But Democrats tore Republicans apart ahead of the midterms for even hinting that reforms are needed to keep entitlements from going bankrupt. What makes Haley think she would do much better with a similar argument in a general election? “You saw the people in that room,” she told RCP between campaign stops, “every one of them nodded their heads at that.”
Give her enough time, and Haley believes she can win the argument. “It just means I’ve got to talk to everybody,” she said, “but I’m not going to lie to them. And I’m not going to go and give them some political quick answer. I’m going to speak hard truths because that’s how you lead.”
While Republicans are split on Social Security now, her answer reflects a return to GOP fiscal orthodoxy that was once mainstream among conservatism. But Haley doesn’t just reflexively tack right. Behind closed doors, Republicans are increasingly skittish that by following through on their anti-abortion promises, they are at risk of alienating voters. Not Haley.
“It’s not a losing topic,” she said of the abortion debate. Good politics follow what she sees as good policy, and even after setbacks for the GOP like the recent loss of a state Supreme Court seat in Wisconsin, Haley insisted that “Republicans shouldn’t run away from it.” As governor, Haley signed South Carolina’s 20-week abortion ban into law. Now as a candidate for president, she said the conversation should begin with “the consensus side” that unwilling doctors shouldn’t be forced to perform abortions or that abortion “shouldn’t be allowed up until the time of birth.”
Her goal remains “doing all we can to save as many babies as we can,” she said before adding, “But when you start going and saying, ‘how many weeks are you for? How many weeks are you?’ That’s a no-win.”
Haley reserved her harshest criticism for Biden and slammed his administration’s recent Title IX proposal that would make it illegal for schools to ban transgender students from playing on sports teams with students of the opposite biological sex. “It is beyond horrific that he thinks it’s OK for our girls to be in a locker room with biological men,” she said, vowing to “fight him every step of the way.”
But the issue hasn’t caught her by surprise. Haley has dealt with these kinds of matters before as governor and “strong-armed” an effort to bring a transgender bathroom law, which required individuals to use public and school restrooms corresponding with the sex based on their birth certificate, like the one in North Carolina, to her state.
“We didn’t disrupt the entire student body for that one student, nor did we put that student in harm’s way because they were different,” she said of that 2016 debate. “What Biden is doing is furthering division. It’s dangerous,” she said of the current controversy. “What he’s doing is dangerous for the girls, it’s dangerous for the transgender individual that’s going through this. All of this has got to stop. It’s been carried too far.”
Haley leans on that experience as both a former executive and a diplomat, a track record helpful in Iowa where domestic agriculture policy intertwines and overlaps with international relations. For instance, Trump balked at an E-Verify measure, like the one Haley signed into law in South Carolina, saying while president that it was too “tough” and that farmers “are not equipped” to use that kind of system to check the immigration status of workers. Haley nearly rolls her eyes.
“It’s not about whether it’s tough or not,” she said. “This is about making sure that we only have people hired in this country that are legal.”
“So no, I believe in my farmers, I know what they’re capable of,” she continued. “They’re doing it in South Carolina, I think they can do this around the country.”
At one farm in Buena Vista County, inside a hog barn, Haley cradled a piglet that could easily go by Wilbur or Babe in another context, shouting to be heard over the squeals of the rest of the newly weaned herd that if China is to stay in the World Trade Organization “they need to start playing by the rules.” The animals will be over 200 lbs. by October and headed to slaughter. If Haley is still in the race two months after the first primary debate, the pig she holds could easily be on a plate at a voter breakfast.
“You know why they’re so arrogant?” she said of the Chinese companies buying up farmland throughout the state and flouting trade agreements. “Because no one is doing anything about it.”
Rusty Kosky, owner of the operation, nodded in agreement. “The second you push back, and I saw this at the UN, they fall back on their heels,” Haley said. “They really are paper tigers, but you have to push back.” The farmer nodded again before walking the candidate back to her car.
“I already liked her when she was at the UN. I knew she was a bulldog,” Kosky said as Haley pulled away. “And you needed it. I loved to see how she stood up to those countries.” One voter at a time, Haley is confident her luck will improve the harder she works, regardless of who else is in the race.
This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.
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