In long-shot bid for GOP nomination, Nikki Haley turns to Texas

Presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaks to supporters at a rally at South Side Music Hall on Feb. 15, 2024, in Dallas. (Desiree Rios For The Texas Tribune, Desiree Rios For The Texas Tribune)

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DALLAS — Presidential candidate Nikki Haley pitched herself Thursday as the one to spearhead a new conservative movement as she wages her long-shot bid to deny Donald Trump the GOP nomination for president.

Another appeal this election cycle? The former South Carolina governor, 52, is a younger alternative to Trump, 77, and Joe Biden, 81.

Haley stopped in Dallas as a part of a two-day fundraising swing through Texas with additional stops in Houston and San Antonio — hosted by some of the state’s most prominent and deep-pocketed GOP donors including Harlan Crow and Ross Perot Jr. Haley has set her sights on states like Texas with open primaries, meaning that any voter can cast a ballot regardless of their party affiliation, as a possible path to gain an edge on Trump after losses in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.

“Everywhere he goes, chaos follows him,” Haley said about former president Trump at a rally Thursday night at South Side Music Hall just outside of downtown Dallas. “We can’t be a country in disarray and a world on fire and go through four more years of chaos. We won’t survive it.”

In Texas, Haley faces an immensely steep climb. Though many of the state’s top Republicans had once entertained an alternative to Trump, they have now largely consolidated around the former president. On top of that, Haley’s open targeting of Texas because of its open primary accelerated chatter of closing the state’s Republican primary among GOP activists already fretting about Democrats’ ability to vote in the election.

Haley trailed Trump in Texas by more than 60 percentage points in a University of Houston poll last month.

DALLAS, FEBRUARY 15, 2024: Nikki Haley, GOP presidential candidate, speaks to supporters at a rally at Gilley’s Dallas South Side Music on Thursday, February 16, 2024 in Dallas, Texas. CREDIT: Desiree Rios for The Texas Tribune

Nikki Haley stopped in Dallas as part of a two-day fundraising swing through Texas with additional stops in Houston and San Antonio. Credit: Desiree Rios for The Texas Tribune

Haley isn’t completely without support from Texas Republicans. She snagged endorsements from former U.S. Rep. Will Hurd and former Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price. (Trump endorsed Price’s opponent in her unsuccessful bid for Tarrant County judge.)

“We need somebody who can come in and serve eight years, two terms,” Price said in introductory remarks Thursday. “We need somebody the American people can respect and relate to.”

It’s unlikely, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston, that Haley will turn out enough independent voters, who tend to lean conservative in Texas, to help her make significant gains against Trump.

“She's looking for the best opportunities to try to make a stand but those are becoming vanishingly small,” Rottinghaus said.

To Dario Nuñez, a 19-year-old business major at the University of Texas at Dallas, Trump’s persistent denial that he lost the 2020 presidential election and his subsequent efforts to overturn the results are unappealing. Haley, Nuñez said, also presents a more optimistic vision for the country than Trump at a time of widespread disillusionment and pessimism about the direction of the country.

Americans “have lost sight of the America that they always dream of, the American dream,” Nuñez said. “I feel like Nikki Haley is the right choice to restore that pride and that strength.”

Nuñez, who considers himself a conservative voter, hasn’t ruled out voting for Trump should he win the nomination – particularly if Haley is his pick for vice president.

For Randy Case, a 74-year-old physician in Las Colinas, and Jennifer Case, a 59-year-old hospice nurse, Haley still has plenty of time to win the nomination. The married couple voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020, primarily out of “repulsion” for Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Randy Case said.

But Trump’s apparent embrace of Russia President Vladimir Putin was on their minds Thursday — particularly Trump’s remarks over the weekend that he told NATO allies during his presidency that he would urge Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” to countries who don’t meet their defense spending obligations.

That hit home for the Cases, they said, who took in a Ukrainian family fleeing the Russia-Ukraine war.

“The notion that the commander-in-chief would invite an autocratic head of state to do whatever the hell he wants with our allies is the sort of thing — and not the only thing — but the sort of statement that just absolutely drove us away,” Randy Case said.

DALLAS, TX - FEBRUARY 15, 2024: Nikki Haley, GOP presidential candidate, poses for photos with supporters at a rally at Gilley’s Dallas South Side Music Hall on Thursday, February 16, 2024, in Dallas, Texas. CREDIT: Desiree Rios for The Texas Tribune

Nikki Haley poses for photos with supporters at a rally at South Side Music Hall on Thursday. Credit: Desiree Rios for The Texas Tribune

If Trump wins the nomination, the Cases aren’t sure who they’ll vote for.

“We’re not there yet,” Jennifer Case said.

“It would be an incredibly distressing situation if it's Trump and Biden running against each other,” Randy Case said. “It's a lose-lose (situation).”

Early voting in the Texas primaries begins Tuesday.

Disclosure: University of Texas - Dallas and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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