Meet The Only Member of Congress Who’s Backing Nikki Haley

Meet The Only Member of Congress Who’s Backing Nikki Haley

Few Republican politicians who have bucked Donald Trump have lived to tell the tale. Candidates who have expressed mere skepticism of the former president have faced fierce primary challenges. Of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in 2021, eight did not return to Congress in 2023.

Perhaps nowhere have these harsh reprisals been clearer than in South Carolina,where former Republican Gov. Mark Sanford lost a House bid in 2018 after criticizing Trump and where Trump-backed challenger Russell Fry unseated Republican Rep. Tom Rice after Rice voted to impeach the former president for the Jan. 6 attacks on the Capitol.

But there is one man who, seemingly, has managed to defy these new laws of political gravity: South Carolina Rep. Ralph Norman, the lone member of Congress to endorse Nikki Haley.

So far, in advance of the Feb. 24 South Carolina primary, he’s faced little blowback from Trump and his allies. There have been no angry Truth Social posts about Norman, nor have any ornate conspiracy theories been woven about him by MAGA influencers. As one plugged-in Trump ally granted anonymity to speak frankly put it, “people don’t give a fuck” about Norman’s support for Haley.

How did Norman manage to pull off the impossible? A combination of his own impeccable MAGA credentials, transparency and the fact that the Trump campaign is just not all that threatened by Haley — not only because of her lower polling numbers, but because she isn’t pursuing the America First mantle claimed by Trump.

Norman has long been a loyal MAGA ally. A successful septuagenarian real estate developer like Trump, Norman is a Freedom Caucus member who stood by the former president in the effort to overturn the 2020 election, even urging Trump to declare “Marshall Law” in a text to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows in 2021. The South Carolina Republican has since told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins that the only thing he regrets in the text message was the typo.

Norman spoke to POLITICO Magazine about the primary and his support for Haley in the Washington office of the Conservative Partnership Institute, a Trumpist organization that has become a Capitol Hill headquarters for the MAGA movement in recent years. There, he rhapsodized about the former president.

“Trump did the right things. That’s why I can’t criticize [him],” he said before traveling back to South Carolina to campaign for Haley. “I will always be grateful for what he did on the Supreme Court. I will always be grateful for what he did for Eddie Gallagher [a Navy SEAL accused of war crimes on whose behalf Trump intervened after a conviction by a court martial]. I will always thank him for … keeping gas prices low.”

Norman endorsed Haley in February 2023 just after she announced she was running, tweeting that “It’s time for a reset and a new chapter in national Republican politics, and there’s no better person to help write that new chapter than our former governor and my good friend, Nikki Haley!”

His relationship with Haley goes back decades. They were elected to the South Carolina state legislature together in 2004, and he was one of the few elected officials to endorse her in the 2010 gubernatorial primary where she bested three better-known candidates to win the Republican nomination.

Their relationship is especially notable given that Haley has rankled many former allies over the years — and nearly the entire state GOP establishment is supporting Trump.

Norman based his case for Haley around the fact that she can serve two terms, whereas Trump can only serve one. “We’re in trouble. We’re in serious jeopardy of losing a democracy [if Biden wins a second term],” he told me. “I know it. It’s going to take eight years. She can do it; she’s got the youth.”

Norman dismissed Haley’s recent criticism of Trump as “unstable and unhinged” as mere political rhetoric. “She’s selling herself,” he said. “She’s selling why she should be the leader of the free world.” It’s the same with Trump’s comments about her, Norman continued: “He calls her Birdbrain, he makes comments. She doesn’t take it personally.” He added that he personally finds Trump’s use of disparaging nicknames for political rivals to be funny.

The closest Norman came to offering any criticism of Trump was mildly echoing the critique that Haley has repeatedly offered of the former president as too old for the job. “Can I do things at 70 that I could do at 50 or 40?” he asked rhetorically. “No, much less lead the free world with where we are now.”

“Biden has train-wrecked this country,” he said, describing the enormity of the task that he thought faced the next president.

Norman was relaxed as he talked about his status as Haley’s sole supporter in the House or Senate. “I know who I believe in,” he said. “And I don’t care, to be honest with you, if there were 40 people who endorsed her or none, I’ve always made my own decisions. And if I’m the only one, it’s not lonesome to me. That’s what democracy is all about.”

The South Carolina Republican’s otherwise unblemished record of support for Trump seems to be an effective shield back home against the blowback his endorsement might otherwise trigger.

Rob Godfrey, a longtime South Carolina political operative, said that “for all of the people in Washington who have tortured relationships with Donald Trump, Ralph is not one. … He’s been consistently conservative on principle, and on message.”

Norman simply “just happens to have … a personal relationship with [Haley] that dates back 20 years [who] has decided to jump into the presidential race. I don’t think anybody who is reasonable would fault Ralph for having taken that position.”

Among Norman’s MAGA colleagues on Capitol Hill, most consider him a stalwart ally regardless. Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, one of Trump’s most loyal allies on Capitol Hill, said “I consider Ralph a brother in arms. … I consider him someone who’s with me, not on most things, but almost all things.” Rep. Troy Nehls, a Texas Republican, who went so far as to publicly suggest Trump as a potential speaker during weeks of dissension after former Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s ouster in the fall of 2023, enthused, “Ralph Norman’s a hell of a nice guy. I think he’s great.”

Nehls added that he thought Haley should get out of the race. “She served our country but she’s not Donald Trump. Get out of the race.”

There was one note of discord from Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. “I really can’t understand why anyone would beg for President Trump’s endorsement and walk around claiming they support him and then go support Nikki Haley,” she said. “People make stupid decisions.”

Greene, though, was the exception. Even in South Carolina, where two of Norman’s colleagues are facing primary challenges this year, the incumbent Republican doesn’t have a single primary challenger himself to date.

Godfrey noted Norman’s endorsement “hasn’t raised any questions in South Carolina,” where Norman represents a staunchly conservative district in suburban Charlotte. Instead, Godfrey said, it’s answered one about Norman’s loyalty — in this case, to Haley. “If you need someone who’s a loyal soldier to fight with you, there’s nobody better to be in the trenches with,” Godfrey said.

It helps that Norman has always been personally well-liked in South Carolina — one operative who worked in the state said “everyone adores him” despite his reputation as a maverick. Another Republican in the state described Norman as “a fairly quirky person … who’s always been known as a loner type,” and compared him to Mike Leach, the legendarily brilliant but eccentric college football coach.

Norman’s loyalty and likeability has served him well in preserving his relationship with Trump, too.

Norman said Trump was surprised when Norman called him last year to say that he would be backing Haley. As the congressman recalled, Trump said it was “kind of surprising.” But Trump seemed to make clear that there were no hard feelings, telling the South Carolina Republican that he “had a great family” and was “very nice” during their conversation.

Besides, Trump told Norman, Haley — who was polling at 2 percent at the time — was “not going to be competition.”

Norman said he thought he “owed him” the call and the heads up. Trump “values loyalty, and I’m loyal. … If he ends up getting the nomination, I will be loyal to him. He knows that.”

Norman contrasted his stance with other unnamed Republicans who backed Trump simply because they were scared the former president would make a mean comment or back a primary challenge against them if they opposed him.

But the South Carolina Republican looked askance at the idea that Trump was particularly prone to holding grudges. He reflected on when Trump lobbied him when he was one of the remaining holdouts who refused to back McCarthy as speaker throughout the course of repeated ballots in January 2023. “He called me and he said, ‘You’re doing the wrong thing.’ I said ‘Mr. President, look, I’m doing the right thing. And if you look at somebody who wanted to censure you, that was wrong of Kevin.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I know.’”

In Norman’s view, Trump “doesn’t hold grudges. He and Kevin are still buddies to this day. And he could have blown up with me. But he didn’t.”

There was a caveat, however — that Trump does and should hold grudges for his legal issues. “The Biden administration has weaponized every part of this government,” Norman reasoned.

While Norman’s loyalty and his transparency have apparently helped him pull off this difficult balancing act, there’s another reason Trump world has been complacent about Norman’s single act of heresy. One plugged-in Trump world operative noted that the former U.N. ambassador was viewed differently than former Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, another primary rival until he left the race in January.

“DeSantis wasn’t just trying to defeat Trump and displace him as the Republican nominee,” the operative said. “He was attempting to displace him as the leader of the America First movement.”

There may be limits to how long Norman remains unscathed for his support of Haley. Recent polling suggests that Haley is running far behind Trump in her and Norman’s home state, but if that should change, or if she continues to sharpen her attacks on Trump, Norman could quickly find himself caught in the crossfire.

“What’s true today isn’t necessarily true tomorrow,” said the Trump operative. “The longer Nikki stays in the race, even if she’s just an annoying little gnat, which is basically what she is, that could change real quick.”

Norman said he has not spoken to Trump since backing Haley, but indicated he would call the former president regardless of the result when the primary was over. “I’ll call him either way. … I’ll call him to tell him if he wins. I’m 100 percent behind him.”

Powered by WPeMatico

Comments are closed.