Inside the bitter GOP ‘undercard’ rivalry between Mike Pence and Nikki Haley


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“It’s like giving a shit about who wins the NIT tournament,” said Jeff Timmer, former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party and senior adviser to the Lincoln Project. “Everybody is watching the NCAA Tournament. To use a boxing metaphor, it’s like an undercard race that no one is even paying attention to. They’re all watching the heavyweight matchup between Trump and DeSantis.”

In any other political universe, Pence, a former governor and vice president, and Haley, a former governor and U.N. ambassador, might be part of that A-list matchup, too. But in a race that hinges on either Trump or DeSantis faltering, they are both now fully engaged in a high-stakes, low-return battle for what amounts to table scraps in the primary — jostling for third place and a position to lift off from if Trump or DeSantis fades.

In part, the resentment reflects the continuation of a long-simmering rivalry between Pence and Haley. But it also illustrates a new dynamic in the 2024 primary, in which lower-polling candidates are beginning to go after each other — not Trump or DeSantis — in an effort to gain even minimal traction in the campaign.

Inside Pence’s operation, one senior Pence adviser granted anonymity to speak frankly about the dynamics of the race said “people don’t view [Haley] as a serious candidate.” This person also accused her of “chasing polls.”

“Her campaign is floundering,” the adviser said, “and by all accounts is failing its own competency test.”

For Haley’s part, while an adviser to the former South Carolina governor suggested that Pence’s likely entry into the presidential primary is “not that concerning,” they didn’t skip the opportunity to point out that Pence’s unfavorable ratings are significantly higher than other Republicans in the field. Haley herself, in an implicit jab at Pence and other likely candidates, described in blunt terms the trepidation of Republicans who have yet to announce their campaigns.

“They need to put their big boy pants on,” she said in a recent interview, adding that “you need a decisive person to be president.”

Publicly, aides to Pence and Haley describe them as friendly longtime associates, two Trump administration lieutenants and former GOP governors who called each other to swap advice and encouragement during their respective administrations.

“Nikki Haley has always had a high regard for Mike Pence,” said Haley’s communications director, Nachama Soloveichik. “Any notions to the contrary come from people who have too much time on their hands.”

But Pence and Haley have long been on a collision course — which their rivalry in the 2024 primary has only accelerated. They are the only two former Trump administration officials and GOP governors whose administrations overlapped one another in the early 2010s. Pence picked her as a member of the Cabinet during the transition, and Trump signed off.

Both, too, have sought to project a Reaganesque vibe to voters — hawkish on national security and upbeat about America’s future. In national polls, Pence and Haley register within about 2 percentage points of each other, trading off third and fourth places. A Harvard-Harris poll released on March 24, for example, found Pence at 7 percentage points to Haley’s 5, with both trailing Trump and DeSantis by double digits.

The strife between the two camps dates back to their service in the Trump administration and simmers primarily between their staffs, which have intertwined and overlapped at times. The Georgia-based Republican operative Nick Ayers has worked for Pence and also informally advised Haley. And the Republican pollster Jon Lerner, who has been one of Haley’s top consultants since her run for governor in 2010, briefly worked with Pence during the Trump administration.

Most recently, Tim Chapman, the erstwhile executive director of Haley’s political nonprofit, jumped ship to become senior adviser to Pence’s nonprofit, Advancing American Freedom. The Pence adviser characterized the move as Chapman coming back home to a campaign-in-waiting that more closely matched his long-held movement conservatism. Two people from the Haley camp, meanwhile, acknowledged he was always closer with the Pence team and had not been an integral part of Haley’s political operation.

“I think the principals are fine,” a second person close to Pence told POLITICO, a sentiment echoed by Haley allies. “There’s some staff feistiness. Can’t imagine poaching Tim Chapman helped.”

Tensions also flared in 2019 amid reports that Haley could replace Pence on the GOP ticket in 2020. During that swirl of speculation, Pence’s chief of staff Marc Short said in a statement to POLITICO that Haley “was an excellent ambassador for the Trump-Pence agenda during her one year at the UN.” Haley served in the role for nearly two years.

The Pence adviser speculated, without elaborating, that Haley may have been insulted by Short’s comments, describing the former ambassador and governor as “thin-skinned.”

“There was and is a feeling that Nikki Haley did not do enough to tamp down those rumors, or to distance herself from those rumors,” a third person close to Pence who also worked for the vice president in the White House said. “And that’s rightfully left a bad taste in the Pence operation’s mouth. But rivalry is not the right term for it. Maybe that she’s viewed with some skepticism, and not just palace-intrigue skepticism, it’s policy skepticism, as well.”

Pence mentioned Haley six times in his 2022 political memoir So Help Me God. He called her an “old friend” and singled her out as one of four governors who were “quick to return a call and offer wisdom and support.”

In her own 2019 memoir, Haley also spoke favorably of Pence. “I considered him a friend,” Haley wrote. “Donald Trump and I had had our differences, but his choice of Mike was something I supported and was comforted by.”

Rob Godfrey, a former aide to Haley while she was governor, said he has no doubt that she and Pence still consider one another a friend, and will continue to do so in the future.

“But when you both end up on a potential collision course in the same campaign for the Republican nomination for president, that can make things a little bit stickier,” Godfrey said. “It can exacerbate differences in personality and in policy, and ultimately it can bring some ego from both sides to the top, because at the end of the day campaigns are about competition, and both of them are competitors.

“If they weren’t fierce competitors, they wouldn’t be where they are now.”

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( With inputs from : )


TheNewsCaravan News Desk

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