Nikki Haley wants to make the presidential race about Kamala Harris
She has told voters that the thought of a President Harris “should send a chill up every American spine.” And during the vice president’s recent trip overseas, Haley recast the frame of the election to omit Biden altogether.
“This is really me running against Kamala Harris,” Haley said on Fox News.
Now some other GOP presidential contenders have begun to follow Haley’s lead in turning Harris into a prime target, with aligned outside groups featuring grainy images of the vice president’s face in their ads and candidates using her name in fundraising solicitations. But none has attacked Harris this cycle with the ferocity of Haley, whose small-dollar donations spiked in April when she first predicted that Biden would die before finishing a second term and Harris would replace him.
That provocative argument, which has no evidence behind it, and the spectacle of one ascendant Indian American woman attacking another has generated attention in a race where Haley had until recently struggled to attract the spotlight. Some polls suggest that a strong performance in last month’s Republican presidential debate has boosted her support, but she still trails far behind front-runner Donald Trump.
In Harris, Haley, a former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, seems to have found the foil she wants. Her criticisms implicitly draw voters’ attention to the fact that Haley, 51, is the only woman in the GOP race, while allowing her to highlight the central premise of her candidacy — that it is time for Republican voters to embrace a younger generation of leaders like her.
The criticisms reflect the debate about the ages of Biden, 80, and Trump, 77. They have also enabled Haley to demonstrate toughness without directly attacking Trump as she tries to avoid alienating his supporters. And unlike the men in the race, Haley can rebuff accusations that her criticisms of Harris — the first woman of color to serve as vice president — are sexist or racist by pointing out that she, too, is a woman of color.
Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said some of the GOP candidates appear to have concluded that Harris is an easier target than Biden. The vice president is one in a long line of women of color who have been caricatured by the right as “dangerous” or “extreme,” Dittmar said.
“Biden is harder to run against because there is at least the perception that he appeals to a wider variety of groups,” Dittmar said. “Being White and being an older man, for some people, makes you appear less dangerous — though that is absolutely not true among voters of color. But the voters [Haley] is going for are still predominantly White, and that’s part of the story here.”
Allies of Haley reject the notion that her critiques of Harris have anything to do with race.
For Indian American voters, who lean strongly Democratic, there is a resonance to seeing two influential politicians of their ethnic heritage competing against one another, said Neil Makhija, president of the advocacy group Indian American Impact.
“In some ways it’s fascinating and almost amusing, like, ‘Oh, wow, we’ve basically never been represented on the national stage, and now we could get to the point in the near future where it’s like desi vs. desi,’” he said, using a term that refers to people from the Indian subcontinent.
The vice president’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a surrogate for the Biden-Harris campaign, said Haley’s approach is a desperate effort to “stay relevant.”
“She is running against Donald Trump for the Republican nomination,” Murray said. “She’s in the single digits in the polls. She should be focused on who her rival is if she wants to be the Republican nominee.”
Until recently, Harris declined to engage with the attacks. But when asked about the critiques from the GOP contenders in an interview that aired Sept. 10, the vice president said Republicans tried the same technique in 2020 (when Trump referred to Harris as “a monster”). She added that while she is prepared to lead the country as president if necessary, Biden “is going to be fine.”
“They feel the need to attack because they’re scared that we will win based on the merit of the work that Joe Biden and I, and our administration, has done,” Harris said on CBS News’s “Face the Nation.”
Haley’s volley of attacks on Harris, along with the increased willingness by other GOP contenders to go after the vice president, has renewed the debate over gender and sexism in the presidential race. Some Democrats assert that the Republicans would never target Harris this way if she were male.
But Republicans say their criticism of Harris is based on substance, not gender, and that she has failed to make progress on the tasks she has tackled as vice president, such as addressing the root causes of migration. Other controversial running mates, such as Dan Quayle in 1988, also faced tough scrutiny, they say.
David Kochel, a Republican strategist, said Haley is “trying to present the case beyond Trump and Biden,” using her critique of Harris to drive her central message that it’s time for the GOP to “turn the page” to a new generation of leadership.
“Seventy-five percent of the voters in this country don’t want a rematch between Trump and Biden, and what she’s trying to do is insinuate herself into a contest with Kamala Harris,” Kochel said. “It’s good politics.”
Biden’s status as the oldest president in history gives an added edge to the Republican barbs, since Harris would step into the Oval Office if Biden were unable to do the job.
Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie said in July that he prays for Biden every night “not only because he’s our president, but because of who our vice president is.” South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott’s campaign wrote in an email blast this month that “Having Kamala Harris as our next president would be a NIGHTMARE for America.”
A super-PAC affiliated with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s campaign slammed Harris’s handling of issues at the U.S.-Mexico border in an ad, and DeSantis said in June that “as bad as Biden did, it would get worse” if Harris were president.
Jennifer Lawless, a political science professor at the University of Virginia who has studied women in politics, said that as a woman of color Haley may be able to lob stronger critiques of Harris without alienating independent female voters who would be put off by a White male candidate doing the same thing.
“It’s easier to make the case that this has nothing to do with race, this has nothing to do with sex, this is just one presidential candidate bashing the vice president,” Lawless said.
But Karen Finney, a Democratic political consultant who advised Hillary Clinton, said the attacks on the vice president — which began during the 2020 election — have “relied on sexist and racist tropes.”
“There’s a misconception that if it’s coming from a woman, somehow it can’t be sexist, and if it’s coming from a person of color, it can’t be racist. And that’s just not true,” Finney said.
Haley and her campaign advisers have vociferously pushed back against complaints that her criticism of Harris is discriminatory. “This has nothing to do with Kamala’s gender or Kamala’s race,” Haley said, addressing those questions on Fox. “This has everything to do with Kamala’s incompetence.”
Haley’s allies say she has a candid style whether her target is male or female, and they note that the concerns she is raising about Biden’s age and mental acuity are shared by broad swaths of voters, including many Democrats.
They also point to Harris’ approval ratings as evidence that many Americans agree with Haley’s misgivings about her. About 39 percent of registered voters viewed her favorably in a Fox News poll released last month and 56 percent viewed her unfavorably. (This did not differ dramatically from Biden, who was viewed favorably by 43 percent and unfavorably by 57 percent).
Questions about Biden’s age and mental acuity, justified or not, have emerged as some of the biggest vulnerabilities for the president’s reelection campaign, polls suggest. Several GOP candidates, including Haley, Scott and DeSantis, are addressing that by arguing that it’s time for a younger generation of leaders.
“Even voters who are supportive of his administration, the policies he supports, the things he’s done as president, are still really hesitant about the fact that he’s going to be the oldest president we’ve ever had, and another four years of that would make him even older,” Jennie Sweet-Cushman, a professor at Chatham University who studies women in politics, said of Biden. “To couple that with concerns about this woman who has even lower approval ratings being the backup plan really is the one-two punch on that strategy.”
Harris’s approval ratings have at times dropped below Biden’s, but several pollsters noted that they have generally tracked with the president’s, a pattern shared by most vice presidents.
There may be pitfalls for the GOP contenders in focusing too much on age, political strategists say, especially the risk of alienating older Americans who are the most reliable voters. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said concerns about Biden’s age guarantee that the role of the vice president will be more important to some voters this cycle than in some past elections, but she warned that attacking Harris holds some risks for Haley.
“Any woman candidate has to maintain their likability more than the men do — it’s just more of a struggle,” Lake said, citing 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. “Haley wrongly thinks you can go after the progressive, pro-abortion, woman of color — you’ll be able to be negative and not hurt your likability as much as going after a White male. That may be true in a primary, but it’s certainly not true in the general election.”