Welcome to Thunderdome, where we must pretend that this primary isn’t over for another week or three, thanks to the brilliant decisions of Nikki Haley’s donors. No, seriously, they think she still has a shot! Or at least that’s what they’re telling people:
Billionaire Ken Griffin, one of the nation’s top GOP donors, said Tuesday he has backed Haley and a source familiar with his donations confirmed he gave $5 million in January to the super political action committee supporting her…
During an earlier appearance Tuesday on CNBC, Griffin said he thought Haley would “run away with the general election” if she became the Republican nominee. But he also acknowledged her path is “a narrower road than it was eight weeks ago.”
How narrow you ask? Oh, very, very narrow.
In South Carolina (February 24) and Michigan (February 27) — the primaries after next week’s contest in Nevada, where Haley is not campaigning — any registered voter can participate.
In Texas, Virginia and Vermont — Super Tuesday states that don’t require prior party registration — voters can cast ballots in the Republican or Democratic primary, just not both. But states including Maine, Massachusetts and North Carolina allow undeclared voters to cast ballots in either party’s primary.
Haley’s strategy is annoying Trump and some state GOP leaders, who bristle at the idea of Democrats influencing Republican contests.
“We need closed primaries,” Texas GOP chair Matt Rinaldi posted on X, with a screenshot of an Axios story about Democrats’ potential to give Haley a boost in Iowa’s caucuses. (She finished third.)
The primary ballot in Texas — where Haley hopes to attract non-GOP voters — also includes a ballot proposition measuring support for closing the state’s Republican primaries to non-Republicans. “They have to show a pathway, not just for voters but for their donors,” Republican strategist Alex Conant said of Haley’s team.
A big aspect of this is GOP megadonor affection for coming in late, carrying bags of cash, only to see them as they are lit on fire. See my piece from this month’s magazine:
“The cheat code for figuring out which Republican will win the nomination is to see who the billionaire class is backing and cross them off the list,” said one consultant. “They are dumb, they don’t get politics and they are reliably wrong.”
It’s simplistic to read 2024 as a sequel to 2016, with Haley as Rubio and DeSantis as Cruz, but not entirely wrong. The populist conservative forces that took over the Republican Party in the past decade are in the middle of a disagreement not about what direction to go, but who is best to take them there. The majority believe Trump is still the one; a decreasing minority believe DeSantis is a more effective option; and that leaves roughly a fifth of the party, who never liked Trump or grew to find him distasteful, searching desperately for someone, anyone, whose sign in their front yard won’t lead to feuds with their neighbors.
Nearly all the big-dollar donors in the GOP are in that 20 percent. But when they weigh in on politics, their attitude comes across as hopelessly naive. Many seem to long for the pre-Barack Obama days, where they thought that if only the party nominated a competent generic Republican, the press would give this fictional candidate a fair shake. Republican voters were disabused of that notion: they watched as John McCain and Sarah Palin, then Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, were all treated like dangerous fascists as soon as they became the party’s nominees. Much as some in the media pretend to miss these figures now, voters remember the distorted photos from the Atlantic photographer, the Candy Crowley interruption and that image of Family Guy’s Stewie Griffin in a Nazi uniform wearing a McCain-Palin pin as Third Reich flair.
In Republican politics, it seems only the big money donors still have some fantasy that this anodyne yet thrilling candidate exists somewhere. Voters know that as soon as you’re an actual threat to win, even the friendliest media changes. Haley experienced this herself at the end of December, when she found herself answering the type of random question one gets at a town hall in Berlin, New Hampshire: “What was the cause of the United States Civil War?”
“I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was gonna run, the freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do,” Haley said, before asking the voter what he believed caused the war. When he declined to answer, she followed up: “I mean, I think it always comes down to the role of government and what the rights of the people are.” When the man expressed frustration that Haley made no mention of slavery, she responded: “What do you want me to say about slavery?”
The media, which had largely held back on criticisms of Haley’s candidacy, ate this up — turning it into one more example of Republican racism, or more cravenly suggesting that Haley thinks mentioning slavery as a cause of the Civil War would offend GOP primary voters. What should have been a minor flub — a candidate unprepared to answer an unexpected question — was turned into a multi-day story, with Haley forced to spend multiple appearances defending herself on something completely off-topic from her campaign. And of course, precious few of the segments speculating on Haley’s latent racism bothered to include the fact that it was Haley who finally brought down the Confederate flag at South Carolina’s statehouse in 2015.
The polls begin to reverse
Don’t look now, but Joe Biden just opened up a six-point lead on Donald Trump:
As signs point to the 2024 presidential election being a repeat of the 2020 race between President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump, Biden holds a lead over Trump 50-44 percent among registered voters in a hypothetical general election match-up, according to a Quinnipiac (KWIN-uh-pea-ack) University national poll of registered voters released today.
In Quinnipiac University’s December 20, 2023 poll, the same hypothetical 2024 general election match-up was “too close to call” as President Biden received 47 percent support and former President Trump received 46 percent support.
In today’s poll, Democrats (96-2 percent) and independents (52-40 percent) support Biden, while Republicans (91-7 percent) support Trump.
The gender gap is widening. Women 58-36 percent support Biden, up from December when it was 53-41 percent. Men 53-42 percent support Trump, largely unchanged from December when it was 51-41 percent.
Trump is hurts himself by focusing on 2020
GOP leaders who thought sweeping Trump’s lies under the rug would make them go away have been proven wrong. They thought they were letting sleeping dogs lie. Instead, they were dealing with a hibernating bear. The beast is awake now and he is prowling looking for prey to devour.
It didn’t have to be this way. Trump’s standing took a huge hit in the wake of the January 6 riot, plummeting under 40 percent immediately thereafter. Republicans could have provided enough votes in the Senate to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial. Instead, four members who chose to retire by the next election voted to acquit, along with many older senators who had just been re-elected and wouldn’t have to face a challenge for six years.
Star Wars fans will surely remember the key moment in Revenge of the Sith when Jedi master Mace Windu hesitates to kill Chancellor Palpatine after he has subdued him. Palpatine recovers, kills Windu and goes on to unleash the terror that consumed the galaxy. Republican leader Mitch McConnell must sometimes wonder if that trial was his Mace Windu moment, and whether Trump’s looming renomination will consume his party.
Leaders could have alternatively agreed to participate in the select committee investigating January 6, while insisting that Trump’s charges of fraud also be fully investigated. Democrats might not have agreed to that, but if they had then Republicans friendly to Trump would have had the opportunity — and the obligation — to prove their charges. Again they cowered in fear of Trump’s wrath rather than do the right thing.
This failure could very well be the decision that gives Democrats their weapon in the fall election. Polls show that a large majority of Americans, including nearly two-thirds of independents, think Biden won. Biden is already signaling that he will repeat the claim that helped his party stave off defeat in the midterms, that Trump and his MAGA movement are a threat to democracy. If opinion regarding the election fraud myth proves to be as predictive of Trump support in November as it has so far, Biden’s chance of re-election skyrockets despite his low job approval.
Trump’s lean, mean re-election machine
The two veteran political operators and their small team have helped Trump build a huge lead in the race for the Republican nomination. They have helped him land major endorsements, lobby state Republican parties for beneficial rule changes, relentlessly mock his rivals, develop the successful strategy of campaigning on his multiple criminal indictments, and make sure events are packed with red cap-wearing supporters.
“Most people don’t know who Susie Wiles is. Most people don’t know who Chris LaCivita is. That’s not a bad thing,” Corey Lewandowski, a campaign manager of Trump’s 2016 operation who remains close to him, said in an interview.
“They’re doing their job every day. And there’s one guy whose name is on the side of the plane: it’s Donald Trump, and he likes it that way.”
The team’s success to date suggests Trump could give Democratic president Joe Biden a much tougher time than four years ago in their likely November match-up.
“Biden is going to be facing a first-class Trump operation this time around,” said veteran Republican consultant Scott Reed, who has worked on presidential and senatorial races. “Most of the hangers-on have been jettisoned.”
One more thing
If you didn’t believe me in the last few weeks when I teased Senator Tim Scott as a viable option for Donald Trump’s VP pick, just check out how he performed in this Fox hit last night. It’s a far cry from the guy Mitch McConnell was boosting just a few months back! Scott brings something different to the table than the female candidates, and he also doesn’t come across as so ambitious that he’ll upend the Donald’s agenda if they end up winning. The possibility that Trump drags this out Apprentice-style is very real… but his pursuit of the black male vote is widely known, and he may think Scott can give him a boost in that demographic.