Republican voters turned out to vote against Nikki Haley in Nevada on Tuesday, delivering the sole remaining challenger to Donald Trump’s bid for the GOP nomination an embarrassing night of headlines.
The night was essentially a worst-case scenario for Ms Haley; her campaign chose not to compete in Nevada’s caucuses, set for Thursday, and instead put Ms Haley up against three rivals who had already departed the primary before Tuesday. The result? Instead of losing to Donald Trump in a contest her team blasted as “rigged”, the former governor found herself finishing second behind “none of these candidates” as vote totals came in.
Her campaign, with apparent knowledge of how the state was trending, reminded reporters in a memo earlier this week that the campaign had not run ads or invested any serious effort in Nevada; Ms Haley herself hasn’t been in the state this year, and has instead focused her energy on campaigning in her home state of South Carolina.
“Nevada is not and has never been our focus,” Haley campaign manager Betsy Ankey had said on Monday. “I’m truly not sure what the Trump team is up to out there but they seem pretty spun up about it.”
But that doesn’t change the fact that Mr Trump’s support in the GOP remains strong enough to deliver a defeat to Ms Haley even when he isn’t on the ballot. Thanks to rules allowing voters to participate in both the primary and caucus this year, Ms Haley is now caught in the middle of a one-two punch: Mr Trump will “win” his uncontested caucus tomorrow, delivering another round of uncomfortable headlines for his rival.
Nevada was never going to change anything. The state Republican party relegated itself to near-irrelevance this year by refusing to go along with Nevada’s shift from a caucus to a primary system, and successfully scared away any candidates from investing any serious time or money in the state this cycle. What it was always going to be, and what it has turned out to embody, is a speed bump for the Haley campaign as she searches for momentum in South Carolina, which votes on 24 February. She desperately needs a victory or very close finish in second place to remain a relevant candidate going ahead into Super Tuesday and beyond.
On Wednesday, with California on the daily agenda, the Haley campaign began rolling out the first part of its Super Tuesday strategy. A press release outlined her selection of leadership teams in several states — Washington, Utah, and Massachusetts.
South Carolina remains a make-or-break moment for the Haley campaign, and this week launched a new ad across the state attacking her opponent in some of her strongest rhetoric yet. The short spot paints an image of a Donald Trump consumed by desires for revenge and losing a step thanks to age, two burdens she argues the Republican Party cannot afford in the fall. She’s also more recently turned her fire on DC Republicans who have lined up in support of the frontrunner, her attacks emboldened by the unworkable chaos that has consumed the House Republican caucus for months and the apparent collapse of the “grown-up” contingent within the Senate Republican leadership team.
She appeared on Fox News on Monday to beat up House Republicans on their home turf. “[E]verybody’s tired of a do-nothing Congress. I mean, can they do anything?” she asked host Neil Cavuto.
“Because we’ve seen nothing, out of Republicans or Democrats, they have an inability to get anything done.”
“[Y]ou can’t have Trump sitting there saying, don’t do anything until the election. We have a completely open border,”
“We need this fixed now,” she said. “We need congressional members to stay in DC and not leave until they figure this out.”
Her remarks did little to halt lawmakers in the GOP from blowing up the bipartisan Senate compromise on border security and funding for Israel/Ukraine, which occurred on Wednesday as the lead GOP negotiator torched his own party for acting unserious about tightening border controls and playing politics. The House, meanwhile, tripped over its own feet once again Tuesday evening as the Republican majority in the lower chamber put up articles of impeachment against Alejandro Mayorkas, Joe Biden’s secretary of Homeland Security, only to watch the vote fail.
With Nevada (almost) in the mirror, Ms Haley now faces a simple question: will a late-game shift towards criticising Mr Trump convince enough Republicans to leave his camp in time for a victory in South Carolina? If not, this thing is basically decided. Open and semi-open primaries aside, Nikki Haley will not be the Republican nominee for president unless she gets more Republicans to vote for her. In New Hampshire, that didn’t happen. Her home state may, at the end of the day, be her best opportunity to reverse her fortunes. But it still may not be enough.