“She is as charming as she is coldblooded,” wrote a journalist about Nikki Haley. Now that she’s announced her candidacy to challenge Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, we’ll see how well these traits work for her. Haley has the makings of an appealing national candidate. At 51, she’s a good age — older than Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, 44, a likely contender, but a generation younger than either Trump, 76, or Joe Biden, 80. Elected governor of South Carolina after service in the state legislature, Haley knows the nooks and crannies of state government, where most policymaking happens these days. Technically, that makes her an “outsider,” good positioning for a Republican candidate.
Haley’s time as U.N. ambassador widened her perspective and gave her a chance to show toughness under fire. But it also tied her to Trump, a jagged sword that cuts both ways.
Born to immigrant parents, Haley graduated from Clemson University with a degree in accounting. She worked as an accountant for her mother’s clothing business and was active in local civic and business groups.
In Haley’s first legislative campaign, she defeated an incumbent by campaigning on property tax relief and education reform. She became the Republican majority whip in the General Assembly. Haley ran for governor in 2010 at the urging of the then-governor, Republican Mark Sanford.
She was polling last in the primary until Sarah Palin, the former GOP vice presidential candidate, endorsed her. Haley won the general election by four points, becoming the nation’s second Indian American governor after Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal. She was reelected four years later with 56% of the vote.
Haley gained national attention in 2015 when, in the wake of the Charleston church shooting that took the lives of nine African Americans, she announced her support for removing the Confederate flag from the grounds of her state's Capitol.
While governor, Haley appointed Tim Scott to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy, making him South Carolina’s first African American senator. Scott, incidentally, is contemplating his own presidential bid, one that could split Haley’s home base.
Playing presidential politics in 2016, Haley endorsed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio for the GOP nomination and fiercely attacked Trump. When Rubio withdrew, she then endorsed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. She backed Trump in the general election, but said she was “not a fan.”
In 2017, Trump appointed Haley U.N. ambassador, a surprise given her earlier opposition to the new president. Pundits viewed Haley’s acceptance of the job, and then her decorous resignation after only 11 months, as a clever way to get closer to Trump without getting too close.
Ever since, Haley has gone back and forth on the 45th president, causing whiplash to those following her moves. She even promised she wouldn’t run for president if he ran.
So how will Haley handle Trump?
We got a glimpse on Wednesday when she skillfully tied Trump and Biden together: “America is not past its prime. It’s just that our politicians are past theirs.” She then went nuclear with her proposal to require mandatory competence tests for politicians over 75.
Haley also went after Trump’s electability, which could be his Achilles’ heel. She pointed out that Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections; of course, the last two were Trump’s doing. It was a veiled warning about the risky consequences of a third Trump nomination.
In her announcement, Haley made race an issue. Attacking “identity politics” and rejecting the idea that America is a racist country, she stressed that she is neither Black nor White. Her campaign video took a visual shot at the 1619 Project, sponsored by The New York Times, that attempted to reframe history by elevating the role of slavery and race in America’s founding.
Can Haley become the nation’s first woman president?
Like any presidential candidate, she must quickly raise a lot of money, sharpen blurry messaging, jack up low poll standings and build organizations in key states.
By any measure, Nikki Haley starts off her national candidacy as a long shot, without a strong base. She needs a few big breaks. And one of them, in the end, may be the 2024 Republican vice presidential nomination.
Ron Faucheux is a nonpartisan political analyst and writer based in Louisiana. He publishes LunchtimePolitics.com, a nationwide newsletter on polls and public opinion. He’s the author of "Running for Office."