Tiffany James has spent her career working to advance Democratic priorities, and that’s why she’s committed to helping Nikki Haley beat Donald Trump in South Carolina’s GOP presidential primary.
“We want to convince people to put country over party and to say our democracy is at stake,” James, a South Carolina organizer for Primary Pivot, a national super PAC whose goal is to persuade Democrats to vote in open primaries for Haley. “We need to make the best decisions and put our vote strategically toward someone who can help keep our democracy intact.”
James, a South Carolinian who has worked on the Democratic presidential campaigns of Pete Buttigieg and John Kerry, realizes this isn’t the easiest sell for many Democrats. But the idea isn’t that they’ll have to vote for Haley, South Carolina’s former governor, in the general election or even that they’ll have to switch registrations. It’s a one-time vote for Haley on Feb. 24, with the goal of stopping the candidate seen as the more dangerous of the two remaining GOP options, neither of whom Democrats actually want getting near the White House.
“A lot of her policies and platforms I don’t agree with, but we can agree on democracy. Haley isn’t someone who will inspire an insurrection or who would deny the election. She is somebody who respects our Constitution and respects our democracy,” James said. “That is the one thing we can agree on.”
Trump’s allies have made much of Haley’s electoral and financial support from Democrats, arguing that you can’t rely on non-Republicans to win a GOP primary and suggesting Haley should drop out of contention. At the same time, some of Haley’s recent attacks on Trump, particularly her repeated suggestions that he’s mentally unfit for office, have direct appeal to the type of anti-Trump Democrats who could chip in with small-dollar donations.
The ex-president’s campaign on Friday afternoon blasted out a roundup of press clips with a subject line drilling the point: “Nikki Haley Is Funded by Democrats, Wall Street, & Globalists.”
Haley’s campaign insisted there’s no effort to chase Democrats with tough talk on Trump, which presumably isn’t to woo Trump’s own base, though the campaign suggested it was looking beyond the GOP for votes.
“The Republican Party has to be a story of addition again, not subtraction,” Haley spokesperson Olivia Perez-Cubas said in a statement to HuffPost. “Trump lost races we should have won in 2018, 2020, and 2022. If Republicans want to start winning again, we have to start bringing in new voters, including independents and Democrats who are fed up with Joe Biden’s bad policies.”
Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaks at a campaign event Thursday on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina.
Though establishment Democrats are largely skeptical of the efforts, extending Haley’s time in the race with either votes or money could deprive Trump of bigger fundraising checks of his own, exacerbating existing financial problems for both his campaign and the Republican National Committee.
Primary Pivot’s efforts will ultimately test how far some Democrats are willing to go to stop Trump’s seemingly inevitable march toward the GOP presidential nomination and if that includes voting for a candidate many Democrats find equally as troubling. Haley, who served in Trump’s Cabinet as ambassador to the United Nations, isn’t exactly a Democrat’s dream: She’s taken hard-line stances on transgender rights, abortion access and union busting, and has predicted Biden might die in office.
But Democrats like James want voters on the left to grasp the even bigger danger of four more years of Trump, who still stands by his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and faces 91 felony charges in four criminal indictments.
“We would rather have a Haley-Biden election in November,” James said.
That logic may not make sense to Democrats who’ve seen Haley’s poll numbers against Biden. Many national polls have Haley doing better than Trump in a head-to-head matchup with Biden, meaning that Haley has a better shot than Trump of actually becoming the next president. A poll from Quinnipiac University released Friday showed Haley beating Biden, 47% to 42%, if she’s the nominee.
“It’s too gamey. We wouldn’t have an impact,” Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) told HuffPost. “Even though it has some theoretical appeal to hurt and make it tougher for Trump, I don’t think it’s a worthwhile pursuit for us.”
South Carolina Democrats also have their own primary on Saturday, and though Biden faces only a nominal challenge from Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), establishment Democrats would much rather have their voters cast a ballot for Biden than Haley. The New York Times reported on Thursday that Democrats are warning their voters not to vote in the Republican contest.
“I want Republicans to vote for Joe Biden,” said Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), a Democratic kingmaker in the Palmetto State whose endorsement helped Biden win the 2020 Democratic primary.
Republicans also called the idea a waste of time. “There’s not going to be a way for Democrats to change the outcome. There never is. It’s a Trump state,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who backs Trump instead.
“Democrats are not going to cross over,” said Matt Wylie, a South Carolina-based GOP consultant who noted Haley is running 20 to 30 percentage points behind Trump in her home state. “You may pick up a couple of points here and there. It’s a winner-takes-all state, and she’s not going to win the state.”
But there’s reason to believe that at least some on the left will bite. Democrats, independents and anti-Trump voters made up a substantial chunk of Haley’s backers in Iowa and New Hampshire. In New Hampshire’s Jan. 23 primary, Haley captured 65% of undeclared voters, enough to win a handful of delegates. But she still finished a distant second in New Hampshire and third in the Iowa caucuses behind Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Ultimately, any delay in seizing the nomination stands to hurt Trump and the RNC financially. The RNC just had its worst fundraising year in more than a decade, ending 2023 with just $8 million in cash on hand. Once Trump becomes the nominee, he and the RNC can start jointly raising significantly larger sums from individual donors — sums that have been available to Biden since the start of his campaign.
Money, meanwhile, is also where Haley stands to benefit the most from Democrats. Even small-dollar donors will help her survive through Super Tuesday races in March. Haley’s allied super PAC has already raked in big money from high–profile Democratic donors, including LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and tech investor Matt Cohler.
Haley’s campaign reported raising more than $17 million last quarter, with $14 million left over to spend in the coming months, a healthy sum that gives her breathing room to stay in the race beyond South Carolina — and make more trouble for Trump.
Since New Hampshire, Haley has ratcheted up her attacks on Trump, calling him “toxic,” “totally unhinged” and “insulting.” She also questioned his mental fitness, telling ABC News that he’s “declined.” And she hasn’t been afraid to go after him over his legal troubles and his use of super PAC money to pay his mounting legal fees. It’s a more aggressive strategy from earlier in the campaign, when she mostly avoided criticizing Trump.
“I am not going anywhere,” Haley told reporters on Thursday. “We have a country to save. And I am determined to keep on going the entire way. As long as we can keep closing that gap, I’m going to keep staying in.”
Arthur Delaney contributed reporting.