For months, the presidential primary looked like the Ron DeSantis-Donald Trump show.
So it came as a surprise to some top Republicans this week when the well-funded super PAC supporting DeSantis turned its fire on Nikki Haley, a candidate still registering in the low-single digits in national polls.
Never Back Down, the pro-DeSantis group, is now running an ad online attacking Haley, has polled Twitter users on a new nickname for her, and accused her in a tweet of “trying really hard to audition” to be Trump’s vice presidential pick.
The move suggested a shifting dynamic in the contest: With DeSantis falling further behind Trump in national and early-state surveys, his allied super PAC is trying to ensure that the primary remains a two-way race and that other candidates vying to be the Trump alternative do not gain traction.
“This is the DeSantis team acknowledging that he is closer to the field than he is to President Trump,” said Justin Clark, a Republican strategist who was Trump’s 2020 deputy campaign manager but who isn’t involved in a 2024 presidential campaign.
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The pro-DeSantis PAC’s anti-Haley offensive came after the former South Carolina governor took a shot at DeSantis during an interview on Fox News for his heavy-handed approach toward Disney and suggested the theme park relocate several hours north to her home state. Shortly after, Never Back Down began running a digital ad featuring clips of Disney employees touting the company’s promotion of pro-LGBTQ themes, and concluding with a silhouette image of Haley holding hands with Mickey Mouse.
It wasn’t a one-off, but part of a coordinated offensive. The group announced the spot would be included in a “six-figure” digital ad buy in South Carolina, a key early primary state. And it put out several tweets attacking Haley, including one saying she is “embracing woke corporations” and another with a poll asking if she should be nicknamed “Mickey Haley” or “Nikki Mouse.”
“It’s a bad strategy to defend Woke Disney when they decided to defend the sexualization of children,” Erin Perrine, a spokesperson for Never Back Down, said in a statement, when asked about the group’s recent attacks on Haley. ”It’s mind-boggling [that] any Republican would side with a massive corporation that has an unprecedented level of self-governance over protecting children and families, but I guess 2023 is a strange time.”
DeSantis’ allies may have no other choice than to go on the attack. While Trump has been the consistent polling leader, it’s DeSantis who has been taking fire from a number of would-be rivals, including former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, businessperson Vivek Ramaswamy and Haley.
A pro-Haley super PAC, SFA Fund Inc., (an abbreviation for “Stand For America”) regularly sends out news roundups to reporters highlighting unflattering coverage about DeSantis, something the group doesn’t do for Trump or Haley’s other primary rivals.
“Ron DeSantis’ No Good, Very Bad Week,” read the subject of one such email. “DeSantis’ Disastrous Journey to the Swamp,” read another.
This week, the group created a video mocking DeSantis’ suggestion that he might open a state prison next to Disney World. And after her Fox interview about DeSantis, Haley joked that South Carolina conservatives are “not sanctimonious” about their values — a nod to Trump’s “DeSanctimonious” nickname for the Florida governor.
DeSantis is comfortably in second place in most surveys, trailing Trump but well ahead of the other Republicans in the field. But in recent weeks, he has lost ground, with Trump picking up endorsements from several Republican Congress members in Florida and with some major donors expressing reservations about the Florida governor. Two recent polls of South Carolina GOP voters showed Trump far ahead of the pack and Haley only narrowly behind DeSantis. A survey conducted earlier this month by National Public Affairs, a Republican firm co-founded by Clark, found DeSantis at 21 percent, with Haley at 19 percent. A Winthrop University poll taken several weeks earlier showed similar results, with DeSantis at 20 percent and Haley at 18 percent.
“The fact that Ron DeSantis is attacking her is not surprising,” said Mark Harris, a Republican consultant who is running the pro-Haley super PAC. “It’s a clear indication that he’s losing ground.”
Nachama Soloveichik, a spokesperson for Haley, also took a swipe at DeSantis, contending that as governor Haley would have “avoided wasting taxpayer dollars on tit for tat battles.”
The presence of Haley and others in the race presents a challenge for DeSantis, who must take steps to consolidate the support of voters who are looking for someone other than Trump. Any traction that rival candidates gain could detract from DeSantis’ effort to overtake the former president.
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The dynamic bears some similarities to the 2016 primary, when Trump prevailed over a splintered field of Republican rivals. The non-Trump candidates spent months relentlessly attacking one another while largely leaving Trump untouched. It ultimately paved the way for Trump to win the nomination.
Because DeSantis is not yet an announced candidate, it has fallen on Never Back Down to take the lead in promoting him and attacking his prospective rivals. The organization — which has also aired ads attacking Trump — is expected to be among the most well-funded entities in the primary. It has announced that it has already raised $30 million, about two-thirds of which came from Nevada hotel executive Robert Bigelow.
Some Republicans, however, have privately questioned the decision to go after Haley, arguing that in taking on a lower-polling rival, DeSantis appeared weak.
“Attacking candidates with no votes does not have the upside of gaining votes,” said Curt Anderson, a veteran Republican strategist who is not involved in the primary.
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