This is not Nikki Haley’s day in the sun. Barring something miraculous, she’s not going to overtake Donald Trump in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. But when you try to imagine a path forward after the election for each of the candidates, she stands alone in clearly having one.
To understand why, here’s an interesting thought exercise. What if all the political prognostications we’ve heard over the past week or so turned out to be true? What if Trump beats Biden, as recent polls have indicated he would, while voters continue to turn out in droves for pro-choice Democrats, as pundits remarked after last week’s elections?
There’s a screaming contradiction between these outcomes that will take more than one election to resolve. That sounds like Nikki Haley territory.
A mom in her 40s observed that a central dynamic of last week’s elections was a lot of 35-year-old women who have become supremely irritated by 50-year-old women. They’ve had it with school board shouting matches, and they were born after Roe v. Wade. They turned out in large numbers last week in districts Trump carried in 2020, helping to pass the abortion rights amendment in Ohio and defeating Moms for Liberty candidates in school board races in several states.
If any Republican can articulate a message that would bring this growing cohort of voters back into their party, it probably is Haley, not only because she’s a woman, but first, obviously, because she’s a woman. At the same time, Haley has been governor of South Carolina and a high-ranking official in the Trump administration. She is fluent in the language of the right.
If Trump loses the election next year, Haley could be best positioned to pick up the pieces he leaves in his wake. And if Trump were to experience a dramatic change in circumstances before that time, Haley could be the most nimble in seizing the moment. She has already committed $10 million to begin ads in Iowa and New Hampshire in December.
Over the past week or so, Trump has referred to Barack Obama several times as if he were still president. That could be a sly wink to his base or a sign of diminishing mental capacity. Either way, it’s weird. Trump has always been an unconventional candidate but based on some of his recent behavior, a lot of voters will be surprised when they start paying more attention to him. It’s as if he’s on a shorter fuse than one that could last until Election Day, 2024.
In the same New York Times/Siena College poll, which showed Trump leading Biden in several battleground states, 71 percent of voters said Biden’s age was a problem, while only 39 percent said the same of Trump. That question will be worth asking again over the coming year.
It won’t be easy for Haley or any other possible post-2024 candidate to come up with a new path on the abortion issue. After Ohio voters defeated a measure that would have made it harder to pass the abortion rights amendment and then decisively approved the amendment itself last week, four Republican state legislators announced an effort to subvert it. “To prevent mischief by pro-abortion courts,” they are introducing a measure that would hand enforcement of the amendment to the legislature and prevent the current 6-week abortion ban from being removed.
That’s just a hint of the conflicts that have arisen for Republicans, not simply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe but with the immediate passage by Republican-majority legislatures around the country of abortion bans that go well beyond what voters in states like Kansas and Ohio have indicated they are willing to accept.
Next year we’re sure to see variations of the ad which was so effective for Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, in which a young woman who was raped at the age of 12 by an abusive stepfather looks head-on at the camera and says, “Anyone who believes there should be no exceptions for rape and incest could never understand what it’s like to stand in my shoes.”
Figuring out how to deal with that message should be at the top of the Republican Party’s list of problems to address before next year’s election, but with a presidential frontrunner facing multiple court dates, it won’t be.