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Updated Jan 5, 2024, 6:26am EST
politics

Nikki Haley’s key aide stays quiet

Campaigns & Elections/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
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The News

George W. Bush’s “brain” was Karl Rove, Barack Obama had David Axelrod, and Nikki Haley has Jon Lerner, an almost invisibly low-profile political operative whose identity has nearly fused with his client’s since he began working for her in 2009.

Haley’s campaign is unusual in this flailing, lackluster Republican primary season because she’s picked a strategist, and a strategy, and stuck to both — even as her main rival, Ron DeSantis, has seen his campaign lost in a sea of competing voices and organizations. And as Haley emerges as perhaps the last, longshot challenger to Donald Trump for the presidential nomination, her and Lerner’s style of public politics — loyal, disciplined, data-oriented, and perhaps insular — will be tested more than it has ever been.

Lerner is a good fit for her world, in which there’s no doubt that Haley is the star of a party of one. A potential profile would make Lerner’s “skin crawl — he will do everything he possibly could to stop it,” a Republican sometime Lerner ally, the consultant Terry Sullivan, told us. (Indeed, Lerner, a 56-year old resident of Bethesda, Md., according to public records, didn’t respond to inquiries or help in any way with this profile.)

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“What’s interesting about him is his range,” said Dan Senor, an author and veteran of Republican politics. “He can do the bare-knuckles political work — and then pivot to a highly substantive foreign policy role.” One fact that differentiates Lerner from most political operatives, said Senor: “There’s no schmooze in him at all.”

Haley referred to Lerner as a “lemon” for his unemotional demeanor. “Where I follow my gut, Jon relies on facts and the statistics he finds in his polling,” she wrote in her 2012 memoir.

She also wrote of respecting Lerner’s Sabbath-observing Judaism, and of relishing his very rare positive shows of emotion. Colleagues describe him as poll-driven and blunt.

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“Jon is quite smart, and he knows baseball, rap music and politics well. During a high-stakes campaign — regardless of whether you’re a candidate or an advisor to one — he is going to be less likely to talk baseball and music and more likely to tell you, bluntly, exactly what it is going to take to win, no frills or fluff, and he’s usually right,” said Rob Godfrey, a former Haley aide.

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Know More

Lerner’s roots are on the Republican Party’s genteel, big money, pre-Trump right. But the most notable aspect of his approach to campaigns may be his style, drawn from the late, legendary Republican consultant Arthur Finkelstein, a complex figure known for his slashing campaign ads whose clients included Ronald Reagan and Sens. Jesse Helms and Alfonse D’Amato.

Lerner, colleagues say, took two things from his mentor. One is a style of running campaigns with a strong, centralized hand, answering only to the candidate. The other is a direct, poll-driven style of advertising — a preference for simple recitations of Haley’s popular opinions, and her opponents’ unpopular ones, over soft-focus narrative tricks. That’s a throwback in a profession now often dominated by storytellers, from Axelrod to Trump guru Steve Bannon, who believe in the power of a soaring narrative to move voters.

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Lerner came into Finkelstein’s orbit, a friend said, while working for a Republican senator from Minnesota. Finkelstein then brought him to work for New York’s D’Amato, and put him on D’Amato’s losing 1998 campaign. Lerner would go into business for himself, and emerge in the early aughts as a key adman for the big-spending, anti-tax Club for Growth, founded in 1999 to concentrate Wall Street’s power. One of its favorites was Mark Sanford, who hired Lerner to run his winning 2002 and 2006 campaigns for South Carolina governor. The next step would be a 2012 run for the White House.

But when Sanford vanished to Argentina for a love affair, then imploded politically on his return, he fell out deeply with his aide. It was, a state party chairman later told McClatchy, the only time he’d ever seen the consultant “display emotion” — in this case, “complete anger and betrayal.” Lerner, who was close to the governor’s wife, Jenny, described himself in a rare 2013 interview in somewhat milder terms, as “saddened and disappointed.” But Sanford and his allies felt the consultant had sided with Jenny and turned on his client, two people close to Sanford said.

“Mark learned the level of Jon’s loyalty when he was hit with scandal in 2009, and anyone who deals with Jon should know that — he’s just a gross consultant who lives for survival,” said Scott English, Sanford’s former chief of staff, in an interview. (Sanford declined to discuss Lerner.)

Sanford had by then led Lerner to Haley, whom the governor helped persuade to run to succeed him. (She would find the governor “supportive but strangely emotionally distant.”) Lerner was at the heart of a tiny campaign squad that weathered a brutally personal, slashing 2010 campaign, as his advertisements bluntly ticked off her rivals’ flaws. He remained a key adviser through her tenure.

To that point, Lerner had followed the path of other successful political consultants of his generation, building wealth and power through a network of relationships, consulting fees, and television ad buys. (Sanford’s aides still bitterly joke that the governor bought the consultant’s Breckenridge ski house, though the South Carolina governor was never his only client.)

But when Haley accepted Donald Trump’s nomination to be ambassador to the United Nations in 2017, Lerner’s career took an unusual turn: He traded his lucrative consulting gig (the Club for Growth alone was paying his firm, Red Sea, about $15 million each election cycle) for the $164,200 annual salary of a deputy ambassador. He left gritty domestic politics for what he said in an emailed statement to Bloomberg in 2017 was a deep commitment to foreign policy — his “hostility to anti-American authoritarian governments.” He was also responsible for managing his boss’s Washington politics, which were as dicey as any in the age of Trump.

Lerner almost rose higher: In 2018, he was tapped by Vice President Mike Pence to be his national security advisor, and planned to do this job while also remaining as deputy to U.N. Ambassador Haley. The new position didn’t last long. Just days after the announcement, Lerner withdrew from his role with Pence after Trump learned of his work with Club for Growth, which produced anti-Trump ads during the 2016 election. A then-senior White House official told Semafor that Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway was the White House official who alerted the president to Lerner’s alleged disloyalty. (Conway did not respond to a request for comment).

Lerner has spoken in public only of the foreign policy aspects of his job. He recalled in 2019 that his biggest surprise on arriving at his new office was the fact that “several offices within our suite had posters on the walls showing, in great detail, the Israeli settlements in the West Bank.” The Obama administration “had seemingly the view that those were the issues that really animated Middle East policy. That was not our position. And so we were able to move things in a different direction.”

Ambassador Haley was “probably best known for her record on Israel,” Lerner wrote in a 4,400 word essay in the Jewish conservative magazine Commentary, the most extensive expression of his own views. The iconic image of her, hand raised alone against a resolution on the status of Jerusalem, was paired with a series of other moves including blocking the appointment of a well-regarded Palestinian leader as an envoy and voting against funding for the U.N. refugee agency over its ties to Hamas. The underlying point, Lerner argued — and the Trump administration seemed to prove — was that the United States could win friends in the Arab world without trying to balance Palestinian interests with Israelis.

Lerner left the United Nations in 2018, largely to return to political consulting, but also became a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. He has written occasionally there, most recently to downplay concerns over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial proposed changes to the power of the judiciary. He remains close to pro-Israel American political figures like Senor.

His and Haley’s positions, now mainstream among Republicans, align the United States totally with Israel’s point of view, and are greeted with intense hostility by many in Washington and the region. Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Gulf States Institute who writes for The Atlantic and the New York Times, described Lerner as a “complete fanatic, totally opposed to peace. If he were an Arab, he would be a flag-waving fan of Hamas.”

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Shelby and Ben's View

Lerner’s hand is clearly visible in Haley’s simple, patient approach to the 2024 campaign. Unlike her rivals, she’s opted against focusing on a single state — a time-honored path to a moment of glory and a losing campaign. Instead, she’s stretched her focus out to all the primary states, trying to chart a narrow course across the early primaries toward ending up as the sole non-Trump alternative. Her message to voters is also simple: She’s the most electable Republican — and one who can depart from the “chaos” that so often surrounds Trump.

Haley, who pays Lerner’s firm a relatively modest $15,000 monthly retainer, has also been frugal, a preoccupation of Lerner’s (and a marked contrast with DeSantis’s messy, extravagant bid). On Tuesday, the campaign announced it had raised $24 million in the fourth quarter of 2023 — more than doubling their previous fundraising numbers — and entered the new year with $14.5 million cash on hand.

It’s Haley’s own dexterity, however, that has kept her upright, at least until recently, on the near-impossible Republican tightrope. She’s a rare former Trump aide who maintained both her relationship with him and her distance from him, a party of one who is seen neither as Trump’s pawn nor his nemesis. Winning a Republican primary against him may well be impossible, but Haley and Lerner’s careful strategy seem, so far, to have gotten her closer than anyone else.

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Room for Disagreement

DeSantis has attempted to capture the Trump movement’s energy; Haley’s relationship to the former president’s legacy, meanwhile, is more ambiguous. And there may be no way to win a Republican primary without being even Trumpier than the former president. “Congrats, Nikki,” a person close to the DeSantis campaign told New York Magazine. “You won the Never Trump primary. Your prize is nothing.”

As an advisor on a rival campaign put it: “He’s [Lerner] very smart, and good at what he does. His only mistake in this race is picking a candidate who can’t win.”

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Notable

  • Humility isn’t quite the word for Lerner’s low profile, as a quote from McClatchy’s 2011 profile suggests: “Candidates are better served when they remain the focus of public attention rather than their consultants … I guess I don’t have the same kind of ego investment that others in the industry have.”
  • Lerner was also Haley’s “eyes and ears on the ground in the nation’s capital: a critical role as Haley’s profile rises in an administration buffeted by leaks and turmoil,” Bloomberg wrote in 2017.
  • “It’s a new era because Haley challenged and disproved some important basic assumptions about Middle East policy,” Lerner concluded in Commentary.
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