The Buzz

Gov. Nikki Haley’s role in 2016 presidential race fades

After backing a new anti-Donald Trump candidate last week, S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley’s role in the 2016 Republican presidential race is fading.

Haley’s support of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., won little in a year where GOP voters seem to care more about emotion than endorsements.

A day after Rubio dropped out, Haley said Wednesday she now is backing U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in the race to win the GOP nomination.

But her support of Cruz was not very enthusiastic. Instead of offering any direct help to Cruz to defeat Trump, the Republican front-runner whose combative campaign rhetoric she has criticized, Haley shared her opinion of the state of the GOP race.

The governor said she was not endorsing Cruz, suggesting a lesser role than with Rubio, where she hit the campaign trail and spoke on his behalf at county GOP dinners in Florida. And Haley’s chances of becoming the Republican vice presidential nominee — already a long shot — seemed to shrink as well.

No Cruz events are planned with Haley — unlike U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, the Seneca Republican and former presidential candidate, who agreed to headline a Cruz fundraiser this week.

“The ball is in her court,” a source close to the Cruz campaign said.

University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said Cruz, a self-proclaimed GOP outsider, might be better off taking a pass on public support from establishment politicians like Haley and Graham, who previously had endorsed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for president.

“This reinforces what Trump voters think about the establishment trying to deny their guy the nomination,” Sabato said. “The thinking is that, ‘They’ll go with anybody,’ at this point.”

For its part, the Cruz camp is pleased with support to try to keep Trump from winning a majority of GOP delegates before the Republican National Convention in July.

“We’re more than happy to have everyone come aboard with us,” Cruz campaign spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said.

Trump’s top endorser in the state, Republican Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, said he did not make a push to win over Haley and Graham for the New York billionaire. “They have given no hint of interest in endorsing or supporting Donald Trump,” McMaster said.

McMaster added he did not think Haley’s and Graham’s support of Cruz would stop “the very strong Trump movement.”

“No. 1, I think the effort to stop the movement is a mistake, and No. 2, it will fail.”

Haley’s choice

Haley, a rising star among national party insiders, runs the risk of finding herself on the outside of the 2016 race by backing Cruz.

Praise of Haley’s handling of the Charleston church shooting and her call to remove the Confederate flag from the S.C. State House stoked talk of the S.C. governor as a possible GOP vice presidential pick. As they trekked through the state, GOP presidential candidates visited the governor, who posted her photos with them on social media.

Her endorsement of Rubio before the S.C. presidential primary last month generated buzz. She appeared on national news shows as the Florida Republican finished second in the state’s primary, placing ahead of Cruz. But Trump won the Palmetto State primary and all 50 S.C. GOP delegates.

After South Carolina, Rubio’s fortunes dimmed due to poor showings in March’s multi-state primaries, including Florida. Last week, Trump handily trounced Rubio, including winning the two Florida counties where Haley spoke at county party dinners on his behalf.

Now, a Trump nomination could land Haley on the presidential sidelines.

The one-time political allies —Trump donated to Haley’s campaigns — are feuding.

Haley has ripped Trump for his proposal to temporarily ban Muslims, calling it un-American. And, in recent speeches, Haley has suggested Trump’s campaign rhetoric is leading to the type of division that reared its head last year in the racially motivated slayings at Emanuel AME Church and the shooting death of an unarmed African-American motorist in North Charleston.

Trump has returned the rhetorical fire, calling Haley lax on stopping Syrian refugees from moving to the state and preventing the possible relocation of Guantanamo Bay prisoners to a Navy brig near Charleston.

With Rubio out of the race and backing Trump out of the question, Haley bounced her support to Cruz, the only GOP candidate who has a shot of stopping the front-runner before the convention.

Putting ideology first

Haley’s role with Cruz, however, is murky.

In part, that could be because she was seen as being closer to Rubio and Bush in the months ahead of the GOP primaries.

Like Bush and Rubio, Cruz made the short list for Haley’s endorsement, earning a dinner with the governor.

“My sense is that she just picked Rubio over Cruz because she liked Rubio, and he was probably more aligned with her,” said Rick Tyler, a former campaign spokesman for Cruz. “I don’t have any reason to believe that she disliked or couldn’t work with Cruz.”

After Rubio dropped out last week, Haley put ideology first, talking about Cruz having a consistent, steady record as a conservative, unlike Trump, who once supported abortion and previously donated money to Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton.

Meanwhile, two other top S.C. Rubio supporters, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of North Charleston and U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy of Spartanburg, have not said who, if anyone, they back now.

Sabato said Haley and Graham perhaps should have considered a different tactic.

“They would help more if they stayed silent,” he said. “But they can’t do that by nature.”

More in common?

Haley’s office said Friday the governor was not commenting about Cruz, other than her statements of support made earlier in the week.

Critics have raised concerns that Cruz will not compromise, citing his role in shutting down the federal government for 16 days in 2013 in a failed effort to defund the Affordable Care Act. They also worry that his strict views on religion and abortion could hurt efforts to broaden the Republican voting base.

Cruz’s camp said Haley supporters have little to worry about with the governor’s new choice for the White House.

Despite any differences Republicans might have with each other, they share the same views about repealing the Affordable Care Act, supporting Second Amendment rights and curtailing undocumented immigrants, Cruz aide Frazier said. Plus, she added, plenty of Republicans have issues with the front-runner.

“No one trusts what Trump will do or has any confidence he will be a conservative,” Frazier said.

Tyler said voters should take comfort that Cruz has served in the Senate, argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and worked in the administration of President George W. Bush, Tyler said.

“He understands the workings of government,” Tyler said. “He just believes it should be within its constitutional limitations.”

Whatever role Haley eventually takes with the Cruz campaign, Lt. Gov. McMaster said he and the governor will continue to speak about issues affecting the state without broaching the elephant in the room — their differences over presidential politics.

“It’s not an elephant, it’s just a fact,” McMaster said. “I’m 100 percent for Trump, and she is 100 percent for anybody but Trump.”

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC