Now in the race, Haley hopes Georgia ties boost her White House bid

Credit: Taylor Glascock/The New York Times

Credit: Taylor Glascock/The New York Times

CHARLESTON, S.C. — A few moments after former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley gave a rousing endorsement of Herschel Walker’s ill-fated U.S. Senate campaign in Gwinnett County, she offered a reminder of her own political ambitions.

“You know I always keep one eye on Georgia as I want to make sure all is going well,” the former South Carolina governor said during the September stop at a bustling Indian American shopping complex.

Haley has long kept close ties to Georgia, wading into competitive races and honing relationships with grassroots activists, well-connected operatives and emerging Republican stars as she readies her own long-expected presidential bid.

She’ll begin to put those connections in Georgia and across the South to the test now that she’s kicked off her White House run, making her the first major Republican candidate to challenge Donald Trump’s comeback bid. She launched her campaign Tuesday with a video and plans a rally Wednesday in Charleston.

”You should know this about me. I don’t put up with bullies. And when you kick back, it hurts them more if you’re wearing heels,” said Haley, who would be the nation’s first female president and the first U.S. president of Indian descent if elected. “I’m Nikki Haley and I’m running for president.”

The growing field could bring a clearer picture of the limits of GOP loyalty to the former president in Georgia and the rest of the region, where strong conservative enthusiasm for his campaign helped catapult Trump to front-runner status in 2016.

Many leading activists and operatives in Georgia are eager to turn the page on Trump and see Haley or another rival as an alternative. DeKalb County GOP Chair Marci McCarthy, a Trump ally, noted Haley’s extensive work to boost Republican contenders in Georgia.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

“She’s well-liked, and I expect many Georgians will come out with an open mind to hear what she has to say during the primary,” said McCarthy, who is running to be the state GOP’s No. 2 officer.

Still, Haley will face challenges as she tries to solidify support in the region. She likely won’t be the only candidate from the South — or possibly even her own state, which has long been the first from the region to vote in the presidential primary.

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina plans a “listening tour” in Charleston on Thursday to build buzz for his own 2024 plan. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected by many senior Republicans to join the race.

And Gov. Brian Kemp has taken recent steps to influence the national conversation, including expanding his new federal political action committee.

Meanwhile, in a reminder of South Carolina’s premier role in the 2024 race, former Vice President Mike Pence is headed to Charleston next week.

“It’s a jumble right now because of the Trump dynamic,” said Cory Ruth, a GOP strategist. “There are establishment-types flirting with a run, but no one knows the safe place to put their money or their resources. Haley could seal herself early in that lane.”

‘Follow her heart’

Haley is expected to lean into her foreign policy experience as Trump’s ambassador to the U.N. A video from a pro-Haley super PAC shows her touting the U.S. as the “greatest force for good in human history” at a time when tensions with China and Russia are boiling over.

So far, Trump seems most anxious about a challenge from DeSantis, who is expected to court donors, activists and elected officials during nationwide stops after the Feb. 28 release of his memoir.

Trump has lobbed derisive nicknames at the Florida governor — calling him “DeSanctimonious” — leading to jeers from some conservative leaders who chastened him to avoid the friendly fire.



Haley, for her part, has avoided butting heads with Trump. He told reporters that she contacted him about her likely bid, and he seemed to relish the prospect of a more crowded field — which could deprive his critics of the chance to rally around a single opponent.

But Trump has also signaled he won’t take the threat from Haley lightly. He recently shared a 2021 clip of Haley vowing she wouldn’t compete against Trump, writing on social media that she has “to follow her heart, not her honor.”

And no Republicans are scoffing at Trump’s chances. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released in January showed nearly three-quarters of Georgia Republicans have a positive view of Trump — slightly higher than DeSantis and far surpassing Pence’s favorability rating.

Haley, who was not included in the poll, began forging her connections to Georgia politicians during her two terms as South Carolina’s governor, even when her state competed with Georgia for economic development deals and port investment.

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Credit: Greg Bluestein

She was one of the earliest big-name GOP supporters of then-U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler in 2020 as she faced a tough challenge from fellow Republican Doug Collins.

And she rallied with Kemp and Walker during last year’s midterm as both campaigns raced to try to energize women upset with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that safeguarded abortion as a constitutional right.

“For every person, it’s personal — whether you’re pro-choice or pro-life,” she said during her September stop with Kemp. “And that’s why I think it was so important that we not leave it to unelected justices to make that case for us.”

The daughter of Indian immigrants, she also displayed a punchier side during her Georgia stops. In the runup to the midterm, she drew fire for a quip that U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock should be deported because of his stance on illegal immigration. (The Democrat called her rhetoric “ugly and divisive.”)

Credit: Christina Matacotta for the AJC

Credit: Christina Matacotta for the AJC

Scott Paradise, who was Walker’s campaign manager, said Haley has campaigned in Georgia “likely more than any other surrogate.”

“She was engaged early in 2022 and came back whenever she was requested,” Paradise said. “And that engagement should pay dividends.”

Those visits didn’t just generate media coverage and IOUs. Republican strategist Ryan Mahoney said they also helped her build “strong name ID and goodwill among the party faithful” — particularly those queasy about Trump’s third run for the White House in eight years.

“Thankfully,” he added, “GOP primary voters will have several quality candidates on the ballot not named Donald J. Trump.”