Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley laid out a vision for her 2024 presidential campaign on Wednesday, calling for a new generation of Republicans to move into power and reinvigorate the party.
“We lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. We have failed to win the confidence of a majority of Americans,” Haley told a crowd of well over 1,000 people in an open-air pavilion in Charleston, South Carolina. “Well, that ends today. If you’re tired of losing, put your trust in a new generation.”
The event was Haley’s official campaign launch after filing her paperwork to become Donald Trump’s first declared challenger on Tuesday. Haley didn’t mention Trump by name once, but alluded to a GOP electorate that’s “ready to move past the stale ideas and faded names of the past.”
Haley, South Carolina’s first female governor and the first woman of color ever to lead the state, argued that she’s uniquely suited for the role of ushering the GOP into a new era after the party lost the 2020 presidential election.
She called for mandatory term limits and “mandatory competency testing for politicians over 75,” a subtle dig at both Trump and President Joe Biden, her two biggest rivals. She also called for stricter voter ID laws, a stronger border and tougher relations toward China — bread-and-butter issues for the party that don’t, on their face, signal a striking new direction for Republicans.
“America is falling behind. Our future is slipping. Our leaders are failing. And no one embodies that failure more than Joe Biden,” Haley said.
Haley, 51, is walking a tightrope with the former president. A onetime ally and Cabinet member who’d previously vowed not to challenge Trump in 2024, Haley dealt with her only declared rival Wednesday by ignoring him. Critics accuse Haley of trying to have it both ways with the former president, and of veering from her earlier principled stances. Haley served as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations for less than a year — an eternity for public servants in Trump’s orbit. She was praised for leaving on her own terms with her career intact.
Moments after Haley wrapped up her remarks in Charleston, Trump blasted out a press release with a smattering of unflattering media hits, including a link to a 2012 piece in which Haley credited Hillary Clinton with inspiring her to run for office.
Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), one of the Republicans who voted against certifying the 2020 election results for Biden, was the only speaker to acknowledge the former president head-on. He did so diplomatically, mirroring Haley’s high-wire act.
“In 2016, President Trump was exactly what the Republican Party in this country needed … I want to thank Donald Trump for his service,” Norman said, adding that Haley is what’s “desperately needed” in America now, a leader with “real solutions” instead of “political rhetoric.”
Ross Ward, a former South Carolina House candidate, said he “loved” Trump in 2016 but believes he’s not the right candidate now. “When you become president, you have to work with both sides and not say ridiculous, ludicrous things,” he said.
Haley, a former accountant, entered politics after managing the finances of her family’s clothing business. She ousted a 30-year incumbent for a seat in the South Carolina House, and in 2010 she became, at the time, the nation’s youngest governor. “Nikki Haley has always been underestimated in every race and adventure she’s undertaken,” said Katon Dawson, a former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party.
A daughter of Indian immigrants, Haley criticized “identity politics” after declaring that “America is not a racist country.”
“Every day we’re told America is flawed, rotten and full of hate. Joe and [Vice President] Kamala [Harris] even say America is racist. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Haley said.
Trump wasn’t the only Republican whose presence hung over Haley’s launch. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) is expected to mount a presidential campaign in the coming months. Shortly after Haley teased a “special announcement” in Charleston, Scott, the Senate’s only Black Republican, announced an event with the local GOP the following day. Both Republicans then plan to head to Iowa, the party’s first presidential nominating state.
“Every day we’re told America is flawed, rotten and full of hate. Joe and Kamala even say America is racist. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
– Nikki Haley, at the launch of her presidential campaign
A South Carolina-based political strategist, who requested anonymity because of dueling loyalties, said Scott’s message is more positive and better suited for a national electorate that’s tired of divisiveness.
“This presidential election requires a new way of thinking and unfortunately, I don’t think Nikki has distinguished herself enough from Trump. She’s riding his coattails too much, and the coattails are getting shorter,” this person said.
“Nikki has veered from her sunny conservatism toward the culture wars,” they said. “Midterm voters said pretty clearly that’s not a winning national message.”
At the same time, this person acknowledged that Haley is a skilled political operator. “Nikki Haley has always been her most senior adviser. She’s probably the most politically savvy governor South Carolina has ever seen. She reads a room with Bill Clinton-level ability. She’s just as good with students in underprivileged areas as she is with billionaires.”
Haley’s supporters traveled from all over the country to see her launch her campaign. Many said they had been fans for a while. Women especially were excited about the prospect of a woman at the top of the Republican ticket.
“I like that she’s polite, firm and has integrity,” said Susan Harris, a retired accountant who traveled from Tennessee to see Haley. “Being a Republican, I got so such much grief [in 2016]. ‘You need to vote for Hillary [Clinton] because she’s a woman.’ But I’m not going to vote for someone without integrity. [Haley] is the right woman.”
“I would love to see the swamp drained — by a man or a woman,” said Sabrina Parker, an occupational therapist from Georgia who waved a “Haley” sign in the audience but is waiting for the field to firm up before picking a favorite candidate.