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Nov 28, 2023, 10:39am EST
politics

Koch-backed AFP Action endorses Nikki Haley as Ron DeSantis campaign fumes

REUTERS/Brian Snyder
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The News

Americans for Prosperity Action, the well-financed conservative group backed by Charles Koch, announced Tuesday that it’s endorsing Nikki Haley for president.

In a memo sent to grassroots leaders and activists, AFP Action senior advisor Emily Seidel described Haley as “a candidate who can turn the page and win.” Their effort will include “a multimillion dollar ad campaign launching this week,” according to a subsequent press release.

“She has what it takes to lead a policy agenda to take on our nation’s biggest challenges and help ensure our country’s best days are ahead,” Seidel wrote in the memo. “With the grassroots and data capability we bring to bear in this race, no other organization is better equipped to help her do it.”

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On a press call shortly following their announcement, Seidel added that Haley “offers the best opportunity to improve the lives of all Americans.” The group says it reached out to over six million voters before coming to its decision.

Polling also played a key role in AFP Action’s decision: In another memo, the group detailed how Ron DeSantis’ polling “has been static or shrinking” while Haley’s support continues to grow in early voting states. Haley also benefits from high favorability numbers, “is less defined than DeSantis and certainly Trump,” and “consistently performs the best against Joe Biden” in the group’s internal polls, the memo noted.

“Governor DeSantis has been a tremendous leader for the state of Florida,” Seidel told reporters. “He’s been a strong advocate for many of the policies that we fight for every day. But all of the evidence that we’ve already shared on this call point to the fact that Nikki Haley is the strongest candidate in this race.”

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Stand Together, the network Koch founded, is an investor in Semafor.

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Shelby’s view

In terms of the 2024 election, AFP Action has been focused on finding the strongest non-Trump alternative and then trying to boost their odds with a final organizing and advertising push. Picking Haley now, while DeSantis is vulnerable but still active in the race, is a sign they’re eager to give her a chance to consolidate support well before Iowans caucus in January. It’s also one of the final nails in the coffin on DeSantis’ ongoing effort to frame the race for voters, donors, and potential endorsers as a two-man contest between him and Trump.

Back in November, I spent a few days on the ground in Iowa with canvassers working for the group, where I saw firsthand the kind of voters AFP Action is focused on: Republicans who are willing to consider a candidate besides Trump (described as “soft” Trump supporters) and those who want to move on from the frontrunner.

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If my experience is any indication, there’s a large pool for AFP Action to work with — but will it ultimately make a difference in the primary race when Trump is so far ahead?

There have been many well-funded efforts to beat Trump in a Republican primary — and all have failed. In 2015, the Club for Growth spent $7 million to stop his rise in the crowded, divided field. Early in 2016, a group of GOP strategists formed Our Principles PAC to oppose Trump, spending nearly $20 million, to no avail.

“My main lesson from OPP is that it started too late and the election was functionally over by the time we were hitting our stride,” said Tim Miller, the group’s spokesman in 2016. His advice for AFP: “Start 6 months ago. Ten, maybe.”

AFP got a much earlier start than those groups, telling donors in February that it would stop “bad candidates who are advocating for things that go against core American principles.” That was widely, and correctly, seen as a move against Trump, at a time when his strongest challenger was unknown; Haley had not entered the race, and DeSantis was still competitive in polling against the former president.

Today’s decision comes after multiple wealthy GOP donors, who had nervously watched as the DeSantis campaign faltered, signaled that they could support Haley. She’s also benefited from the end of Sen. Tim Scott’s campaign, moving quickly to pick up his donors, and her strong recent polling in New Hampshire, where DeSantis’ brand of conservatism has been an awkward fit so far.

DeSantis wasn’t a strong contender for the Kochworld endorsement for reasons that went beyond his campaign struggles, though. While AFP endorsed the governor’s 2022 re-election, his version of conservatism clashed with the Koch network’s libertarianism, Before he entered the race, AFP criticized DeSantis’s support for laws that would make it easier to sue media outlets: “AFP works to make it easier for all Americans to speak up and hold political leaders accountable.” DeSantis attacked Trump early on the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform package that the former president never talks about anymore — and one that AFP and allies had lobbied hard for.

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The View From The DeSantis Campaign

DeSantis officials accused the Koch-backed group of playing spoiler while also trying to tie Haley to its less popular positions among conservatives.

“Congratulations to Donald Trump on securing the Koch endorsement,” DeSantis communications director Andrew Romeo said in a statement. “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. Every dollar spent on Nikki Haley’s candidacy should be reported as an in-kind to the Trump campaign. No one has a stronger record of beating the establishment than Ron DeSantis, and this time will be no different.”

In recent Fox News appearances, DeSantis has also challenged Haley to a two-candidate debate, telling Laura Ingraham on Monday that the former U.N. ambassador “has taken very, very establishment-oriented positions” that the right format could expose.

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The View From The Haley Campaign

“I’m honored to have the support of Americans for Prosperity Action, including its millions of grassroots members all across the country,” Haley said in a statement. “AFP Action’s members know that there is too much at stake in this election to sit on the sidelines. This is a choice between freedom and socialism, individual liberty and big government, fiscal responsibility and spiraling debt. We have a country to save, and I’m grateful to have AFP Action by our side.”

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Notable

  • Back in March, Semafor’s Dave Weigel asked whether AFP had lost its Tea Party-era clout in the new GOP, after taking on immigration and criminal justice reform stances at odds with MAGA voters. “My sense is that there’s not a whole lot of energy,” former AFP board member Frayda Levin said, “that they’re trying to recreate something that isn’t there.”

Dave Weigel contributed to this story.

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