Nikki Haley is facing broadening calls to drop out of the GOP primary even as she publicly signals no intention to do so ahead of South Carolina’s contest next month.
The head of the Republican National Committee (RNC), the Georgia Republican Party and growing numbers of GOP lawmakers are urging her to drop out, arguing she has no realistic path to the nomination against frontrunner former President Trump.
There are incentives for Haley to keep going, but also risks. She’s up to 17 delegates after New Hampshire and has the potential to win more in the coming primaries, which could set her up to be an alternate nominee to Trump as he faces myriad legal battles.
At the same time, Haley could become demonized within the GOP if her campaign ends up angering rank-and-file Republican voters who want the party to unify behind its likely nominee.
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By sticking in the race, Haley risks being “persona non grata with MAGA world, and Trump and his entourage,” said Republican strategist Brendan Steinhauser.
“She’ll be vilified in that space,” he said, arguing Haley will be “seen as being obstinate” in the face of top party voices calling for support to rally behind Trump.
One Trump ally in the RNC submitted a draft resolution that made headlines this week, proposing the party declare the former president as its “presumptive 2024 nominee” even as he boasts just 32 of the 1,215 delegates needed to get the nod.
The draft argued there was no path forward for Haley and moved to kick the party into “full general election mode welcoming supporters of all candidates as valued members of Team Trump 2024.”
But although Trump has suggested Haley should suspend her campaign, he came out quickly to call for the RNC to back off reviewing the proposal “for the sake of PARTY UNITY,” stressing the party should “finish the process off AT THE BALLOT BOX.”
The draft was reportedly withdrawn before it could come under consideration at the RNC’s winter meeting next week.
Trump’s move to intervene in the effort — which could have cut the primary race short after just two states weighed in — suggests he’s confident he can win in South Carolina, Haley’s home state and the next major test in the presidential race.
“He wants to be able to say, ‘we were head-to-head, and I beat her handily, and I don’t need the party to necessarily pave the way for me,’” Steinhauser said.
At the same time, it also indicates the former president is aware of fissures within his party, and is working to get ahead of them as he guns toward the general.
“He’s got to have the support of Haley’s people in the general,” said South Carolina-based Republican strategist Chip Felkel.
The numbers out of New Hampshire show Haley has the backing of some disaffected Republicans, moderates and independents, Felkel noted, and Trump must work to avoid alienating those groups as he knocks his primary rival.
“He’s got to have those votes if he’s going to beat Biden,” Felkel said.
But even though Trump stepped in to put down the RNC draft resolution, he and his allies are still upping pressure on Haley to drop out of the race on her own.
Trump — who in 2020 sought to claim victory even as votes were still being counted and continues to deny the results of the election — was noticeably annoyed by Haley’s positive framing of her second-place New Hampshire win.
His campaign sent out a fundraising email with the subject line, “Suspend your campaign!” targeting Haley, and the Trump-aligned super PAC, MAGA Inc., said after New Hampshire that it was time for Haley to drop out.
“Every day that Nikki Haley stays in the race is an in-kind contribution to the Biden campaign,” Karoline Leavitt, the Trump campaign’s national press secretary, wrote on X.
RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel said after Trump’s back-to-back wins in Iowa and New Hampshire that the party needs to unify “around our eventual nominee, which is going to be Donald Trump.”
And in an unusual move that drew criticism from some conservatives, the Georgia GOP also directly urged the party “to move to the general election phase of this campaign” and unite behind “eventual nominee” Trump so resources can focus on the likely head-to-head with Biden.
The chair of the Republican Senate campaign arm, Sen. Steve Daines (Mont.), also said this week the Republican nomination fight is over and agreed that Haley should exit the field.
But as Trump’s allies tighten the screws on the former U.N. ambassador, Haley is marching forward to South Carolina, which votes Feb. 24.
“This race is far from over. There are dozens of states left to go,” Haley said in her post-New Hampshire remarks.
“South Carolinians don’t want the DC swamp telling them what to do. They know this race is far from over!” she said Friday on X. Her campaign is already running ads and making appearances in preparation for the first-in-the-South primary.
Strategists are nevertheless split on whether the former South Carolina governor will stay in the race until her home state contest.
Polling averages for South Carolina put Trump more than 30 points above Haley, according to The Hill/Decision Desk HQ, and some observers are skeptical of whether she has the momentum to keep going — and whether she’ll want to risk embarrassment on her home turf.
Steinhauser thinks the pressure to drop out is “only going to increase” as the next major primary nears and doesn’t think it’s a “foregone conclusion” that she stays in until South Carolina.
But with the race now a one-on-one between Haley and Trump, Steinhauser suggested she’s also relishing the media attention, the continued support of her backers and her elevated national profile.
Felkel predicted she’ll stay in until her home state — and might even hang on if she loses there, too.
“She’s playing the long game. Maybe she’s counting on a little help from some juries,” Felkel said, with a nod to Trump’s various legal battles.
Trump is campaigning amid multiple criminal indictments, and some have floated that Haley is waiting in the wings in case the former president’s bid is curtailed by his courtroom battles.
She’s leaned into her electability argument as she campaigns, highlighting polling that shows her putting up a better fight than Trump in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup with Biden.
“If Republicans want to beat Biden, they should nominate Nikki Haley because she’s the only candidate who crushes him by double digits in all the polls. Trump barely squeaks by on a good day. That won’t change as millions more voters get to have a say in choosing our candidate,” a Haley campaign spokesperson told The Hill.
As long as Haley carries on, the former president will not be able to tap into a joint fundraising deal with the RNC that would allow donors to max out contributions and boost the former president’s coffers ahead of what is shaping up to be a lengthy general election campaign.
“Any day the Trump campaign is focused on Nikki Haley is a day they could be going after Joe Biden,” said GOP strategist Brian Seitchik.
“The longer this thing drags out, the more enemies she’s going to make, the more incoming she’s going to take, the less likely it’s going to be that she has an opportunity to get a promotion down the road,” Seitchik said.
But Felkel argued Haley’s probably already angered the former president on that front, and therefore unlikely to score a potential Trump Cabinet position or other gains by dropping out at this point. “What’s she got to lose?”
Brett Samuels contributed.