WASHINGTON — Having failed to beat Donald Trump in New Hampshire’s primary, what had seemed like her most promising opportunity, Nikki Haley’s last, best hope of defeating the coup-attempting former president for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination may now be in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The high court is already scheduled to hear oral arguments next month on the Colorado Supreme Court’s previous ruling, which found that Trump is an insurrectionist because of his words and deeds up to and on Jan. 6, 2021, and he is therefore ineligible to appear on a ballot. And justices could also refuse to take up an anticipated federal appeals court decision denying Trump’s claim that he is immune from prosecution for anything he did as president. That could potentially lead to a felony conviction on Jan. 6 charges before the summer nominating convention.
A quick ruling on either would put the potential of Republicans nominating either a convicted felon or someone not even eligible for office front and center, as millions of GOP primary voters prepare to cast ballots on March 5’s Super Tuesday.
“If the court of appeals writes a good, tight opinion, and the Supreme Court decides that they agree, that would be the easiest way out for them as well,” said Steve Duprey, a former Republican National Committee member from New Hampshire.
With no other major competitors left against Trump, Haley likely has the ability to inject that question into the race, both through paid advertising and through news coverage of her remarks.
Since the exit of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Sunday, Haley has shown a much feistier attitude toward Trump than in the previous year. In the past week, she has repeatedly hit him for confusing her with former Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; has called him “insecure” for lashing out at her in a “temper tantrum” in his post-primary speech in New Hampshire; and has been trying to goad Trump into debating her one-on-one.
When Trump wrote in a social media post that anyone who had contributed to Haley’s campaign “from this moment forth, will be permanently barred from the MAGA camp,” her campaign was quick with a new T-shirt: “BARRED. PERMANENTLY” — free with a $5 donation.
Still, it is unclear whether Haley would aggressively use a Supreme Court ruling putting Trump’s future as a candidate into question. For months, her harshest critique has been that “rightly or wrongly, chaos follows Donald Trump.”
Only in a CNN debate with DeSantis earlier this month did Haley finally suggest that Trump was responsible for inciting the assault on the Capitol. “Jan. 6 was a terrible day and I think President Trump will have to answer for it,” she said.
And even if she were to forcefully push the argument that the party should not nominate someone who could soon be facing decades in prison, other Republicans said, so many primary voters are still so devoted to Trump.
“His base is rabid and would still believe that he’s a victim if he were a convicted felon,” said Amy Tarkanian, a former chair of the Nevada Republican Party.
“Nikki making these references make sense, but it’s not going to move Trump’s base and Trump will still win the nomination,” agreed Anthony Scaramucci, a former White House adviser to Trump who backed former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in this primary before he dropped out. “The irony here is that [Trump] is the only one on the Republican side that is going to be completely destroyed by Biden. These other candidates would’ve had a better chance.”
Short of an external event like a Supreme Court ruling shaking up the race, current polling suggests Haley faces long odds to overcome Trump. In her home state of South Carolina, where she was twice elected governor but has not been on a ballot there since 2014, Haley trails Trump by an average of 38 points ahead of the Feb. 24 primary there. Her chances a week and a half later on Super Tuesday currently look even grimmer, with the national polling average showing her 55 points behind Trump.
“The chances are higher for an alien abduction,” joked Tarkanian.
Still, Tarkanian said, Haley could turn it around. “Honestly, it only comes down to good old money and momentum. Haley is performing better than Trump anticipated, and she has a shot to do well on Super Tuesday. She needs to hit hard and take off the white gloves while explaining her stances.”
Haley’s decision to continue her campaign after Tuesday’s better-than-expected 11-point loss in the New Hampshire primary has also started drawing the opposition of Trump’s allies in the RNC. Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel has called on Haley to withdraw. And David Bossie, a committee member from Maryland, on Thursday circulated a resolution for the party to simply declare Trump the presumptive nominee, even though only two states have held contests to date. (He later withdrew the resolution after Trump came out publicly against, it, and it’s unclear how many of the 168 members would have supported it.)
“She did what she promised she wouldn’t do, which was to tilt the playing field toward one candidate,” Oscar Brock, an RNC committee member from Tennessee, said of McDaniel.
He added that regardless of when the high court rulings come, Haley has good reason to stay in the race. “We may well have someone who is a convicted felon be the presumptive nominee,” he said, adding that such an eventuality would probably get considerable opposition at the convention in Milwaukee. “It’s wise for her to keep collecting delegates. There is likely to be a floor fight.”
For their part, Haley and her staff made clear she had no intention of dropping out. “Who cares what the RNC says? We’ll let millions of Republican voters across the country decide who should be our party’s nominee, not a bunch of Washington insiders,” the campaign said in a statement. “If Ronna McDaniel wants to be helpful she can organize a debate in South Carolina, unless she’s also worried that Trump can’t handle being on the stage for 90 minutes with Nikki Haley.”