Anti-Trump network backed by Charles Koch endorses Nikki Haley in loss for Ron DeSantis

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WASHINGTON — The political network financed largely by billionaire Charles Koch is endorsing former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley in the Republican primary, affording her new support against her Republican rivals in the fight to be the alternative to Donald Trump.

The announcement was made in a memo to grassroots activists via the network’s advocacy arm Tuesday and is being backed by a multimillion-dollar ad campaign beginning this week in states that hold early primary contests and several that vote on Super Tuesday.

“When we announced our decision to engage in our first ever Republican presidential primary, we made it clear that we’d be looking for a candidate who can turn the page on our political dysfunction — and win. It’s clear that candidate is Nikki Haley,” Emily Seidel, senior advisor to AFP Action, said in a statement. “Nikki Haley represents a new generation of leadership and offers a bold, positive vision for our future. AFP Action is proud to be endorsing her and we will be doing everything we can to help make her the next President of the United States.”

While Haley stands to gain support in key primary states, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appears to be at the losing end of the decision, as he struggles to find traction and has tried to find a spark to propel his listless campaign.

“This was not an easy decision for AFP. Governor DeSantis has been a good ally and a champion of many policy positions of AFP and the state of Florida,” a source briefed on the matter said. “But Nikki Haley also was an early ally, going back to the Tea Party movement when she ran for governor of South Carolina, and is also aligned on the issues.”

Donors to Americans for Prosperity, a piece of the political arm of the larger Koch network, had pressed the deep-pocketed group to make a decision and use their resources to boost a preferred candidate sooner rather than later, two sources familiar with the decision said. The push by donors came as the Republican primary field shrank, after former Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. dropped out.

“I’m honored to have the support of Americans for Prosperity Action, including its millions of grassroots members all across the country,” Haley said in a statement after the announcement. “AFP Action’s members know that there is too much at stake in this election to sit on the sidelines. This is a choice between freedom and socialism, individual liberty and big government, fiscal responsibility and spiraling debt. We have a country to save, and I’m grateful to have AFP Action by our side.”

For weeks, people briefed on the matter cautioned that the decision wasn’t considered final until it was announced, with others noting until days before the announcement that the group could still end up backing DeSantis instead.

A day before the announcement, a representative for the group insisted to NBC News the decision was still in progress.

The network had already waded into the Republican primary with advertisements targeting former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden. An endorsement brings with it lucrative financial backing and an early state operation that rivals the infrastructure of the Republican National Committee. It’s known in Republican circles as a turnkey operation — as soon as they decide, AFP can kick into gear.

The group has spent around $4 million on ads so far this cycle (digital, satellite and radio), according to AdImpact tracking. Americans for Prosperity Action, a super PAC, raised more than $70 million in the first half of the year, according to Federal Election Commission records.

The DeSantis team got wind of the likely Haley endorsement after an AFP backer discussed it at a gathering of political donors two weeks ago. A DeSantis donor relayed it to the governor’s aides, who were “apoplectic” and began a full-court press with AFP to buy their candidate more time to return to favor, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

DeSantis had a direct conversation with an AFP executive, according to a person familiar with the discussion. This source said AFP recently told DeSantis they had not come to a decision yet and are still going through their process.

A DeSantis campaign aide, asked before the endorsement was made public, said this never happened.

“The reporting is entirely false. There’s a lot of ‘wish-casting’ going on out there, but the truth continues to be that there is only one candidate that can stop Donald Trump in the primary and Joe Biden in the General Election — that candidate is Ron DeSantis,” Communications Director Andrew Romeo said. “All Nikki Haley can do is try to accelerate Trump’s efforts. We won’t let that happen.”

Following the announcement, Romeo shared a comment with NBC News that he had posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, slamming the group as part of the “pro-open borders, pro-jail break bill establishment,” and said the endorsement would help Trump the most.

DeSantis is in a critical stretch of the race that could be more difficult if the Koch cavalry comes out in force for his top rival.

The endorsement offers a formidable operational advantage, with a grassroots network embedded in primary states and years of door-to-door canvassing know-how.

“If Nikki doesn’t have a robust operation in, say, Florida, which she doesn’t, she can turn to AFP,” a source said. “AFP will become her canvassing operation and can rival the Trump and DeSantis campaigns.”

The thinking is that with a little help, the endorsed candidate could take one or two states and make themselves viable if Trump is convicted in one of the legal cases against him and therefore incapable of service. Trump has pleaded not guilty to the indictments against him in Georgia, Florida, New York and Washington, D.C.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a time when money in a presidential race mattered less,” said one of the Republican sources, who is not connected to either campaign. “That’s why the Koch efforts have always been about lifting someone else in the primary.”

For months, DeSantis was viewed as the most electable alternative to Trump, and as a popular swing-state governor backed by a super PAC flush with cash, someone who had the wherewithal and means to dispatch his competitors easily.

That notion began to dissipate entering the fall as the governor dipped in the polls and struggled to regain momentum.

After signaling the group could get behind DeSantis, AFP began “reserving the right to look at someone else” following the first two debate performances and disappointing polling for DeSantis, who had been their top choice for a while, according to sources familiar with the matter.

Conversations with him stalled a bit and going into November, the group turned their eyes to Haley, according to these people.

“The polls are a snapshot in time. It’s still less than a year out. But when you look at Trump versus Biden, DeSantis versus Biden and Nikki Haley versus Biden, Nikki Haley comes out number one,” said a person familiar with the matter. “She’s the one that can most win Middle America and conservative America.”

In New Hampshire, two recent polls show Haley rising to second place, and ahead of DeSantis by double digits. A Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa poll published at the end of October shows Haley and DeSantis tied for second place at 16 percent.

People briefed on the announcement cite DeSantis’s tilt toward economic populism during his campaign as another reason for the drift, after he was endorsed by AFP during his successful 2022 gubernatorial reelection bid.

“It’s not just a horse race,” one of these people said, and that an array of factors have weighed on AFP’s decision.

Haley had to overcome the Koch team’s aversion to her muscular foreign policy, which took some time, this source said. In recent years, Koch-supported groups have teamed up with left-leaning allies to foster more restraint in U.S. foreign policy.

As Haley has picked up steam, she has seen growing interest from donors who are opposed to Trump. At the same time, voters are looking favorably at her stance on an issue that has left the party reeling and upended ballot measures in even ruby-red states: abortion.

Haley announced Monday that she had qualified for the ballot in more than 20 states.

Leadership at Americans for Prosperity has said it is focused on electability. In a February memo, CEO Emily Seidel said AFP Action wants a candidate not only who can lead, but “who can win.”

Both DeSantis and Haley entered the fourth quarter with a fraction of Trump’s cash on hand, an obstacle as they work to reach voters in places where the former president has notched a runaway lead.

Supporting DeSantis is a super PAC roiled by dysfunction and criticized for a strategy that has appeared to hamper more than help him.

In South Carolina, the group was sending out daily mailers to people’s houses through the summer before dropping off, a source said.

“Heck, we were getting text messages something like every day from Never Back Down PAC, TV ads, mail,” the source said. “They were spending a crazy amount of money early in the state, and then never had the offense. If anything, he went down.”

Haley has said that she expects to do well in Iowa and New Hampshire but that her road to winning the primary will go through her home state of South Carolina, where she was a two-time governor.

She is polling second behind Trump in South Carolina, with 18.8% of the GOP primary vote, while DeSantis is at 10.5%, according to RealClearPolitics’s average of recent polls. By comparison, Trump has 49% support.

South Carolina Rep. Russell Fry, who is supporting Trump, said for the former president to be in trouble, there would have to be a real parity between the other candidates and him.

“Nothing has changed, really, in a year, except that Trump’s numbers have gone up,” Fry said.

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