Nov 28, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Nikki Haley sprouts "grassroots army" overnight with Koch endorsement

Photo: Peter Zay/Anadolu via Getty Images

The Koch political network on Tuesday delivered perhaps the most important endorsement of the GOP primary so far, cementing elite donors' coronation of Nikki Haley as the most viable alternative to former President Trump.

Why it matters: With the backing of Americans for Prosperity Action, the powerful political group founded by billionaires Charles and David Koch, Haley will unlock new access to influential donors, millions in ad spending, and a massive ground operation that rivals that of the RNC.

  • The endorsement also deals a huge blow to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has insisted dating back to his campaign launch in May that the Republican primary is a two-man race between him and Trump.
  • AFP Action acknowledged in a memo that DeSantis' supporters "will be disappointed in our decision" — but ultimately concluded Haley is the candidate best-positioned to beat both Trump and President Biden.

Between the lines: The endorsement could help Haley plug two of the biggest vulnerabilities of her candidacy.

1. Grassroots organizing: While her polling momentum is unmistakable, the scope of Haley's ground operation in Iowa has paled in comparison to the army of door-knockers deployed by DeSantis and his allied super PAC.

  • AFP Action — which boasted of the "largest grassroots operation in the country and a presence in all 50 states" — is now vowing to put thousands of organizers into the field in support of Haley.
  • "Additionally, in the coming days, we'll launch extensive mail, digital and connected television campaigns to supplement those on-the-ground efforts," senior adviser Emily Seidel wrote in the memo.

2. Foreign policy: Koch-backed groups have spent tens of millions of dollars in recent years advocating for military restraint, putting them starkly at odds with one of the most hawkish candidates in the Republican field.

  • Haley's opposition to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and support for aiding Ukraine against Russia, for example, has likely alienated huge chunks of the "America First" GOP base.
  • The Koch network's credibility could provide some much-needed cover: "While we don't agree with anyone on every issue, Nikki Haley, by far, offers the best opportunity to improve the lives of all Americans," Seidel wrote.

How it's playing: The DeSantis campaign lashed out at the Koch network for its endorsement, calling it an "in-kind campaign contribution" to Trump.

  • "Like clockwork, the pro-open borders, pro-jail break bill establishment is lining up behind a moderate who has no mathematical pathway of defeating the former president," DeSantis spokesman Andrew Romeo said.
  • The Haley campaign responded by pointing out that DeSantis had accepted AFP Action's endorsement during his Florida re-election campaign — and that just 24 hours prior, DeSantis had criticized Trump for attacking Iowa leaders who declined to back him.

The intrigue: The DNC issued its own blistering response to the endorsement, saying it's "no surprise the Koch network, architect of Trump's MAGAnomics agenda, found their match in Nikki Haley."

  • "This is more helpful than the AFP nod if we're being honest," quipped Republican strategist Liam Donovan, suggesting that Haley could benefit from being attacked by Democrats and the media.
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