Influential GOP donors are betting their millions on Haley in a new push to beat Trump

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Welcome to the new Never Trump.

The 45th president’s enemies on the right are mustering for a final big money showdown designed to crush his hopes of a third consecutive Republican nomination less than 50 days before voting starts in the GOP primary race.

Nikki Haley will be the lavishly funded vessel carrying the hopes of the influential network funded by billionaire Charles Koch and top industrial and corporate donors who think Donald Trump is a risk too far next November.

Their bet is that the former South Carolina governor can succeed where busted 2016 $100 million front-runner Jeb Bush, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, two impeachments, old school Republicans like Mitt Romney, millions splashed by the Club for Growth and the Lincoln Project and allied groups, a 2020 election defeat, a pliant House GOP majority and several special counsels failed.

Tuesday’s endorsement from Americans for Prosperity Action is the latest indication that Haley – on the strength of a shrewd campaign, a new generational message, and several strong debate performances – is now the GOP establishment’s favorite as the Trump-alternative.

But despite the advantage of the Koch network’s tens of millions of dollars and its vast political machine, the endorsement poses new questions for Haley – the latest woman to take a turn trying to break the highest glass ceiling in politics.

First, will this new boost relatively late simply make her one of the best-financed runners-up in US political history? Or can she use it to mount a serious challenge to the ex-president in building a path to the GOP nomination that does not yet seem to exist?

At the very least, the decision of one of the premier networks in conservative politics to climb on board the accelerating Haley train could help create the only conditions under which Trump could be beaten in a GOP primary that he is currently leading massively, according to polls in early voting states and across the nation. It might speed the process of Haley eclipsing rivals like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and ex-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. This, in turn, could consolidate the field behind one genuine anti-Trump candidate who could wound the ex-president in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary in January and then perhaps make him vulnerable in later big-state contests.

And while President Joe Biden’s campaign is banking on a showdown next year with the unpopular Trump, the AFP Action endorsement might just cause a tremor of concern at the long-shot possibility of a race against a far younger and female opponent, who is beating the Democratic incumbent in most hypothetical polling matchups.

AFP Action senior adviser Emily Seidel said in a briefing document explaining the decision that Haley was best positioned to beat Trump in the primary. She argued that the American people are ready to move on, and that the former South Carolina governor would boost Republicans up and down the ticket in November 2024. And while not referring directly to the four criminal trials bearing down on the former president, Seidel noted that Trump’s “negative baggage” had hurt Republican candidates in previous elections – a situation she suggested Haley could mend.

“AFP Action is proud to throw our full support behind Nikki Haley, who offers America the opportunity to turn the page on the current political era, to win the Republican primary and defeat Joe Biden next November,” she wrote.

The memo makes a logical case for Haley’s strength, and the idea of a fresh face is likely to appeal to Americans who consistently say the last thing they want is a re-run of the 2020 general election between seventy-something Trump and eighty-something Biden.

Why the endorsement may mean less than it seems

Yet Haley faces a massive task.

To win the GOP nomination she’d have to break the spell that has transfixed the party since Trump descended his golden escalator in Trump Tower in the summer of 2015 to launch his tilt at the White House. She’d have to remake the populist, nationalist face of the party or at least neutralize the pro-Trump base and win over some of the ex-president’s supporters.

Haley is in effect seeking to beat Trump by returning the GOP to the very principles that the ex-president drew strength from crushing: deficit-cutting financial orthodoxy and a hawkish internationalist foreign policy that backs US allies and ostracizes tyrants like Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Trump idolized. If she emerges as the main alternative to Trump in the GOP field, she will face a firestorm of attacks from the former president, who sees her as disloyal for serving in his Cabinet as ambassador to the UN and then going on to challenge him for a nomination he appears to believe is rightly his. The line of attack was laid out in the first reaction to Tuesday’s enforcement by Trump spokesman Steven Cheung, who blasted her as “a pro-China, open borders, and globalist candidate” in partnership with “Never Trump RINOs” and “endless-war swamp creatures” who “want to stop the MAGA movement.”

There are many sound arguments why Republicans should pick an alternative nominee.

But the base of the party has an emotional, rather than a pragmatic or logical, relationship with their champion. Trump’s rule breaking, vulgarity and assaults on party and government establishments make him the vehicle of their long-held grievances. And the success of the former president’s strategy in portraying criminal investigations into his behavior as an attempt to steal the 2024 election makes shifting the direction of the GOP very hard.

Republicans ‘still want Trump’

For all of her fluency on the trail and the debate stage, there’s little sign Haley has dazzled the party with her political talent or has built unstoppable momentum behind a movement.

Sarah Longwell – a Republican strategist and pollster, who long ago broke with Trump – told CNN’s Kasie Hunt on Tuesday that a Haley victory that halted Trump’s campaign would be the best thing for the GOP, the country and the world. But she’s still not convinced it’s realistic. “I just think that the path to that happening is extraordinarily narrow for her even with this latest endorsement,” Longwell said on CNN International’s “State of the Race.”

“I just know from talking to Republican voters week in, week out, that they still want Trump,” she added.

One way that AFP Action could improve Haley’s chances is by helping her stay in the race longer. She can then harbor hopes that if she can’t beat Trump, he might self-destruct.

Still, Trump would have to suffer one of the most spectacular collapses in modern presidential history. No candidate in recent years has enjoyed such massive polling leads this close to nominating contests. Some surveys do suggest that voters may be ready to change their minds about him if he’s convicted of a crime. But the ex-president, who has pleaded not guilty in all of the cases against him, is aiming for a quick blowout victory that will make him the effective nominee before his federal election interference trial, which starts on the eve of the countrywide sweep of Super Tuesday races in early March.

And while the argument that Haley would be a stronger general election candidate than Trump is borne out by multiple polls, she risks being undermined by the fact that Republicans encountered on the campaign trail think Biden is easy prey for the ex-president.

The acid test of any presidential campaign is whether a candidate has a realistic route through the state-by-state map to the nomination. It’s possible to draw up a scenario where the former South Carolina governor shocks Trump in Iowa and goes on to win New Hampshire. But could she prevail in her own state, which is solid Trump country? And could she triumph in a dragged out face-off with the ex-president across Deep South primaries and big state races, which are mostly winner-take-all delegate contests? If nothing else, the AFP Action cash may give her a chance to try.

The Koch-led network was not the only titan of the anti-Trump movement to lay out their stand against the former president on Tuesday.

Former Rep. Liz Cheney, considered a Republican heretic by many Trump loyalists, warned in her forthcoming book obtained exclusively by CNN that America could not afford a president who would be “willing to terminate our Constitution.” The Wyoming lawmaker – who played a leading role in the House select committee that investigated the January 6, 2021, insurrection – vowed to do everything she could to stop “the most dangerous man ever to inhabit the Oval Office.” But after losing her position in the House GOP leadership for opposing Trump, and later her seat and effectively her political career, there’s no indication Cheney can stand in his way.

What Haley could gain from the endorsement

Haley has one thing every successful candidate needs as first voting nears – a rising political trajectory. But her problem is there’s no sign she’s actually taking support away from Trump.

AFP Action senior adviser Michael Palmer, however, argued that Haley had risen from single digits in both Iowa and New Hampshire in August to second place behind Trump in November. He produced data suggesting she’s the most likable candidate in the two early voting states and had the most room to make her case since she is less defined than either Trump or DeSantis. The AFP Action decision was a huge blow to the one-time rising star of GOP politics, fueling a narrative that the Florida governor’s campaign is in free-fall. And Tuesday’s developments complicated his campaign’s efforts to convince big corporate donors that he is the best hope to defeat Trump.

The Koch network comes with a widespread, data, financial and door-knocking army that could assuage the concerns among some Republican strategists who have questioned the strength of Haley’s ground game.

As well as muscle in the campaign advertising wars, its endorsement could bring major donors to Haley’s campaign. There is some irony, however, to the idea that a big money behemoth, which channels funds from fossil fuel and huge corporations, could end up being seen by the anti-Trump brigade as saving the country from its most anti-democratic former and possibly next president.

But soon, various pre-game theories about Haley’s prospects will not matter.

The best thing about elections is that the polls don’t count in the end. Even when it comes to a candidate who is as disdainful of democracy as Trump is, voters decide. And the first results are just weeks away.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com