CHARLESTON, SC (AP) – Few have navigated the turbulent politics of the Trump era like Nikki Haley.
In early 2016, the then-governor of South Carolina said she was “embarrassed” by candidate Donald Trump and decried his reluctance to condemn white supremacists. Nine months later, she agreed to join his cabinet, serving as a key validator as Trump tried to win over skeptical world leaders and voters at home.
And shortly after Trump left the White House, Haley, whose resume by then included a stint as ambassador to the United Nations, promised she wouldn’t mind him running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. Still, on Wednesday, she’s poised to become the first major the Republican candidate who will enter the race against him.
“It’s going to be a pretty tough act,” said veteran Republican strategist Terry Sullivan. “She says she’s always been an outsider. She will be again.”
Haley, 51, may be the first to challenge Trump, but a half-dozen or more high-profile Republicans are expected to join the GOP’s race for the 2024 presidential nomination in the coming months. Some potential contenders may be more popular than Haley even in South Carolina, where she lives and has set up campaign headquarters.
Likely rivals include Sen. Tim Scott, a fellow South Carolina native and perhaps the most famous elected official in a state where Trump already has the support of the governor and its senior senator, Lindsey Graham. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence could also be formidable foes if they run, as expected.
Indeed, ahead of this week’s announcement, there is widespread agreement that Haley — the only Republican woman of color expected to run in 2024, a politician who likes to remind people she’s never lost an election — will soon be tested like never before.
Trump has stepped up his attacks on Haley in recent weeks. But allies describe the former governor, who is the daughter of Indian immigrants, as a smart executive in a unique position to lead a new generation of Republicans. They understand that the fight ahead could turn ugly.
“She took the bull by the horns and said, ‘I don’t care, I’m going to run,'” said longtime supporter Gavin J. Smith. “She did that when she ran for governor, and you’ll see that when she runs for president .”
Perhaps more than anyone in this young presidential primary season, Haley personifies the GOP’s changing views on Trump. Her U-turn on whether to challenge the former president was based less on concerns about his leadership or policy disagreements than on a growing belief within the GOP that Trump is losing political steam.
Haley, like the vast majority of her party, has largely supported Trump even after he inspired a violent attack on the US Capitol. It wasn’t until Trump-backed candidates in several key states were defeated in last year’s midterm elections that a wave of high-profile Republicans began openly weighing 2024 bids against him.
New York-based Republican donor Eric Levine says he is convinced another Trump Republican nomination would destroy his party. As he said, Haley is among Trump’s three favorite alternatives.
“I don’t think that as a woman of color and the daughter of legal immigrants from India, she would give a reason for the existence of the Democratic Party. All their vigilante crap goes out the window,” Levine said. “I think she’s a spectacular candidate.”
Haley’s announcement will take place Wednesday in Charleston, the historic seaside city where her campaign will be based. He will travel almost immediately to meet with voters in New Hampshire and Iowa.
She entrusted her campaign to a collection of senior staff led by longtime aides. Betsey Ankney, who runs Haley’s PAC, will manage the campaign, and the PAC’s director of development, Mary Kate Johnson, will serve as finance director, Haley’s team told The Associated Press.
Longtime adviser Haley Chaney Denton and Nachama Soloveichik, who served as a spokeswoman for recently retired Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, will handle communications. Strategist Jon Lerner will serve as a senior adviser, and Barney Keller of Jamestown Associates will be Haley’s media consultant.
For Haley, this week’s unveiling marks a significant step in a long journey that began at the “Good Old Boys Club” in South Carolina, she wrote in a fundraising appeal Friday.
“People thought I was too brown… too feminine… too young… too conservative… too principled,” she wrote.
Born in 1972 in rural South Carolina, Haley has long talked about a rural Southern childhood where she felt she didn’t fit in. She was raised in the Sikh faith with a mother who wore traditional sarees and a father who wore a turban.
“Nikki was regularly underestimated,” said Catherine Templeton, a Republican who served Haley in two roles, leading South Carolina’s labor and public health agencies. “But it makes her work harder.”
In her first campaign in 2004, Haley, a former accountant, defeated South Carolina’s longest-serving member of the House. After six years in the Legislature, she was considered a long shot when she launched her gubernatorial campaign in 2010.
The GOP field was filled with more experienced politicians, and she occasionally faced blatant racism. Then-state Sen. Jake Knotts appeared on a talk show and used a racial slur against Haley. He apologized, saying it was a joke.
Still, Haley became the first woman and person of color elected governor of South Carolina — and the state’s youngest executive. After being re-elected in 2014, her second term was marred by crisis.
She spent weeks attending the funerals of black parishioners shot by a self-styled white man in a Charleston church in 2015. Later that year, she sought and signed legislation to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the Statehouse, where it had flown for more than 50 years.
Haley’s political skills were tested in a different way in 2016, as Trump went from late-night prime-time showrunner to serious Republican presidential candidate.
She endorsed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio before the high-stakes Republican primary in South Carolina, then endorsed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz after Rubio was knocked out.
Haley then described Trump as “everything a governor doesn’t want in a president.” She also said she was “disturbed” by his attacks on former President George W. Bush and condemned Trump’s reluctance to disavow the KKK.
But not long after Trump won the presidency, Haley agreed to serve as the new administration’s ambassador to the United Nations, a cabinet-level position.
“I am proud to serve in this administration and enthusiastically support most of its decisions and the direction the country is taking,” Haley said in a 2018 op-ed.
Later that year, Haley abruptly announced her departure from the U.N. following an ethics investigation, fueling speculation that she might challenge Trump in 2020 or replace Pence on the ticket. Neither happened.
Instead, Haley returned to South Carolina, joining the board of directors of aircraft manufacturer Boeing Co. and entered the lucrative speaking circuit, reportedly earning as much as $200,000. She also wrote two books.
Her public support for Trump continued even after the attack on the Capitol.
“I am really proud of the achievements of the Trump administration. Whether it’s foreign or domestic policy, we should accept them,” she wrote on Twitter three weeks after the uprising.
But it’s unclear whether such platitudes will give Haley much cushion in a party still dominated by Trump and his supporters. Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, the No. 3 Republican in the House of Representatives, has already endorsed Trump’s 2024 bid. While she declined to comment directly on Haley’s candidacy, she insisted that Trump would defeat any Republican challenger “by a wide margin.”
“It’s time for Republicans to unite around the most popular Republican in America,” she said of Trump.