Zito: Nikki Haley wants a conservative renaissance
Nikki Haley has been busy.
The former ambassador to the United Nations and South Carolina governor has spent the past few months not discussing herself but rather conservative candidates running for office with voters across the country.
Her goal is to encourage people to vote for candidates she believes best embody the populist conservative coalition. It's a coalition in which she has been active since she first ran for governor of South Carolina in a 2010 primary against four establishment rivals, right at the dawn of the tea party movement.
"We're traveling all over the country, helping other candidates get elected. It's paying it forward, as I always like to say it," said Haley, speaking of the work she is doing with her Stand for America PAC.
It is also a goal that keeps Haley, who has never lost a race for elective office, front and center with the party base in states across the country. Of course, this will help her if she decides to run in the Republican presidential primary contest in 2024.
Last year, she went to Virginia to support Glenn Youngkin for governor and was one of the few, if any, national Republican figures who went to New Jersey and recognized the insurgent candidacy of Jack Ciattarelli, who nearly pulled off a huge upset.
One of the most high-profile candidates to whom she has paid it forward is former Republican vice presidential nominee and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whom Haley vigorously supports for the House seat that opened following the death of longtime Alaskan Rep. Don Young.
Haley said it's not just because she credits Palin for taking her over the finish line in her primary race for governor in 2010, but also because Haley recognizes Palin's influence in attracting women into the conservative movement.
"One of the papers reported when she came to South Carolina for me that it was the 'rock star sisterhood,' so this is one of the sisters going back and saying thank you to the other rock star sister, to say, 'You know what? You helped me when I needed it. I'm going to do whatever it takes to help Palin get back to where she needs to be,'" Haley said.
South Carolina native Bruce Haynes says Haley differentiated herself from many of the rising stars of the tea party by sustaining her trajectory through accomplishments.
"She was a two-term governor with an excellent record on job creation and her state's economy, was applauded for her leadership navigating the removal of the Confederate flag from the S.C. Statehouse grounds after the Mother Emanuel church shootings, and has demonstrated strength at the United Nations on behalf of America," he said.
Haley, like many supporters of former President Donald Trump, has an up-and-down relationship with his style. When he was running in the presidential primaries in South Carolina in 2016, she was more often a critic than a supporter, yet despite that tension, he named her as his choice for the U.N. job.
In the days following the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, she, like many Trump supporters, expressed her frustration, but she also has no problem giving him a nod on things he got right.
But most Trump supporters aren't in the national spotlight being questioned about him endlessly. She instead turns to talking about the conservative movement and how its people have been ridiculed in the press for years.
"If you look at the last time we had a movement, it was the tea Party. And if you remember, it was coming from an economic frustration: It was 'taxed enough already,' it was 'government needed to get out of our way,' it was the fact that elected officials weren't listening and that the American public was frustrated," she said.
Haley chronicled the eventual splintering of the movement by 2012, what brought them back together by the 2014 midterm elections, what strengthened them in 2016, and, despite losing the 2020 presidential election, its lingering presence in down-ballot elections across the country won by conservative candidates.
"I look at Republicans as being the party of really going back to the basics of what our country was intended to be," she said. "And reminding everyone that government was never intended to be all things to all people. We have to make sure that we remember what it means when you allow government in your life because once they do, they start to take more and more."
She thinks much of the Republican Party has lost its way.
"The establishment has gotten back into that spending. They've gotten back into wanting government to be part of things," she said. "They've gotten back into forgetting what it means to protect our freedoms. And I think we've got to go back to that strong, core, conservative movement that says, 'We the people still get to be in control of what happens in our own lives — not mandates, not regulations, not government spending.'"
It's those principles, and the fears over rising crime, open borders, skyrocketing inflation and energy concerns, that she says are driving new voters, such as Hispanics, toward the Right.
"Immigrant families are very aspirational, and that is part of being a conservative," Haley said. "If you look at my parents, they are no different than any other immigrants who come here legally with such a love for America and all the freedoms it has to offer."
Haley's parents immigrated to the United States from Punjab, India.
"I think the spirit of that is embraced by communities across the country. People very much want to protect the reasons that they came here or their grandparents or parents came here, and they want to make sure they do what they can," she added. "And that's why they're so appalled by what's happening at the border. I mean, my parents just can't believe all of this illegal immigration that's happening because they put in the time, they put in the price, they came here the right way."
Haley says the public is moving rightward in its views about chaos at the border, inflation, crime, how the White House handled Afghanistan, and education, but that Republicans need to be prepared to offer solutions.
"Education will be a huge factor going forward," Haley said, "because when this pandemic hit, the idea that government stepped in (and) mandated what people could do, took away parenting from the parents, took kids out of school, masked them up, and the kids lost two years worth of school, has deeply impacted people."
She continued, "If you were a wealthy family, your kids could go to a private school. But anyone like where I was raised in rural South Carolina, you were stuck. These people are now going to fight for school choice harder than they ever did. They're going to fight for charter schools harder than they ever did. You're going to see more homeschooling than you ever have. And they're going to go back to say, 'What is it that's happening in our education system?' Because you have to make this right."
Haley said that while Republicans have an opportunity to make big gains in this year's midterm elections, she said their message cannot simply be about saying no to President Joe Biden.
"It's getting things done, and we have to commit to doing that. That has to be the Republican cause as we go forward, and we have to fight for the American family," she said.
She argued that Republicans must have a better plan, saying, "You better prove that you deserve to be there, and you better be willing to fight for all the things that you talked about in a campaign. And that's something that we've got to push Republicans really hard because seeing this return of earmarks was devastating and is not OK in a time of such heavy inflation when families are seeing higher prices at the grocery store, seeing more at the gas pump."
Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between.