“Americans for Prosperity” and Nikki Haley Should Blame Themselves for Donald Trump

“Americans for Prosperity” and Nikki Haley Should Blame Themselves for Donald Trump

“Americans for Prosperity” and Nikki Haley Should Blame Themselves for Donald Trump

AFP Action’s Haley endorsement is too little, too late. We’re likely in for a 2016 rerun, with vain politicians again splintering the anti-Trump vote and handing him the GOP nomination.


Apparently, it’s Nikki Haley time. The former South Carolina governor has surged in polling and fundraising over the last few months, to surpass Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as the second-place choice in some early states in the Republican presidential primary. She’s still way behind Donald Trump, the man she served as United Nations ambassador. But on Tuesday she notched another symbolic win: an endorsement from Americans for Prosperity Action, the Koch-founded network that promises to put money and muscle behind her candidacy. “Our internal polling confirms what our activists are hearing and seeing from voters in the early primary states: Nikki Haley is in the best position to defeat Donald Trump in the primaries,” the group said in a statement.

But is the endorsement the political equivalent of a participation trophy, bestowed on someone who worked hard while losing? Probably. The Iowa caucuses are seven weeks from today. While AFP Action says it will deploy “the largest grassroots operation in the country and a presence in all fifty states” behind Haley, it’s hard to imagine her beating Trump. It feels like another exercise in political delusion: a powerful mainstream Republican force pretending Trump doesn’t control the party.

There’s also deep irony here. As the major financial and political force behind the reactionary, anti-Obama Tea Party movement, AFP helped create Trump, the man it is now trying to defeat.

In February, AFP promised to spend heavily to keep Trump from winning the 2024 GOP nomination, its first foray into presidential politics. But the group couldn’t decide on an anti-Trump candidate. DeSantis, polling well back then, had powerful backers, and Senator Tim Scott, who recently left the race, attracted major donor interest. While AFP says it’s spent $9 million on anti-Trump advertising and other organizing, the failure to put its muscle and messaging behind one candidate early has certainly blunted its impact.

Haley is not an obvious choice for AFP. She’s one of the most openly hawkish GOP candidates, opposing the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and favoring tougher moves against Iran; AFP backs neither. However, it’s unlikely that policy matters much to GOP primary voters, since Trump gets away with flip-flopping, name-calling, and braggadocio, saying whatever he needs to on supposedly central issues like abortion. Haley, too, has tried to have it every which way on that issue, opposing a national 15-week abortion ban as too “divisive” for the nation but saying she’d sign a six-week abortion ban if she were still South Carolina governor.

It seems Haley’s recent polling surge determined the group’s move: An AFP poll shows her at 25 percent in New Hampshire, behind Trump’s 40 percent but more than twice DeSantis’s share of 9 percent. But she trails both men in Iowa, where DeSantis, especially, has invested time and money. She even trails Trump, badly, in her home state of South Carolina, although Scott’s departure from the race could help her there.

The conservative National Review’s Jim Garaghty thinks AFP Action’s move means very little, since it’s not enough to drive DeSantis out of the race, or former New Jersey governor Chris Christie either. “It’s the same phenomenon as 2016,” Garaghty writes; “ego, arrogance, and unrealistic hopes of some miraculous turnaround are keeping multiple non-Trump candidates in the race and, in some cases, attacking each other, instead of making the case for someone besides Trump to be the nominee.”

Indeed, the DeSantis campaign is taking cheap shots at Haley and AFP. “Congratulations to Donald Trump on securing the Koch endorsement,” campaign operative Andrew Romeo tweeted. “Every dollar spent on Nikki Haley’s candidacy should be reported as an in-kind to the Trump campaign. No one has a stronger record of beating the establishment than Ron DeSantis, and this time will be no different.”

It’s surprising that the DeSantis crew has time to spitball other campaigns when their own is in turmoil. The head of one of its PACs departed acrimoniously this week, and some campaign staffers are saying nastier things about one another than about Haley or Trump.

I’ll admit, part of me would enjoy seeing Trump and Haley go head to head. They’d be great fun on a debate stage—she’s a savage debater, and watching a woman of color take down Trump would be delightful—but Trump refuses to debate his rivals. Trump’s racist, misogynist base seems unlikely to go for a woman of any color. And Haley still refuses to do what only Christie has to date: condemn Trump’s criminality and unfitness for office. She’s said she’d be “inclined” to pardon him if he’s convicted of any of the 91 felony charges against him, and that if he’s the nominee she’ll vote for him again.

So all of this is political kabuki to me. AFP Action promised a big campaign to block Trump; it stumbled along the way, unable to choose an alternative, and seven weeks before actual voters begin to actually vote, it endorses a woman running in third place behind Trump and DeSantis nationally. Promise made, promise kept; Trump is almost certainly the nominee anyway.

Worst yet, AFP deserves part of the blame for Trump’s taking over its party. In a smart piece this weekend, New York Times reporter Carl Hulse laid out how mainstream Republicans welcomed the anti-Obama Tea Party movement in 2009 and tried to harness its energy. “The political tumult that began with the Tea Party [evolved] into Trumpism,” he observes. In fact, Trump personified the racism inseparable from the Tea Party revolt; he came to real political power by preaching the “birther” lie that Obama wasn’t born here and wasn’t a legitimate president.

And no organization did more to fund and nurture Tea Party leaders than AFP. Bloomberg News called AFP “the Tea Party’s staunchest ally.” In the wake of the GOP’s 2010 gains, The Washington Post ranked AFP first among the five “top national players in the Tea Party,” reporting that the group put $30 million into conservative congressional candidates, many if not most of them Tea Partyers.

Fourteen years later, the group is unlikely to put $30 million behind Haley—who was herself a Tea Party–backed underdog when she was elected governor. Even if it does, it won’t counteract the damage done by nurturing the reactionary forces that helped Trump take over the party. AFP and Haley brought this nightmare on themselves, and on the rest of us.

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