'She's toast': Republicans of color disappointed by Haley's slavery misstepDecember 28, 2023
Republicans of color said on Thursday they were dismayed by Nikki Haley’s initial refusal to say that slavery was the cause of the Civil War. It wasn’t just an offensive historical omission, they argued, but a tactical blunder too.
“She easily could’ve communicated better in that moment, but chose to use a tired old political stump tactic by tossing the same question back to the guy who asked,” said Rina Shah, a Republican strategist based in Washington, D.C., in a text to POLITICO.
“What I do see is her having left out the word ‘slavery’ because she was scared to talk about anything regarding our nation’s complicated history. I think by acknowledging slavery she felt she might be alienating” Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis voters.
Haley, who is currently running in second among GOP primary voters in both New Hampshire and South Carolina, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average, declined on Wednesday night to say slavery was the cause of America’s deadliest war. The next morning, she attempted to clarify her statement during an interview with The Pulse of NH.
“I mean of course, the Civil War was about slavery,” said the former South Carolina governor. “We know that, that’s the easy part.” She also claimed that the questioner during the town hall was a “Democratic plant.”
Black Republicans like Shermichael Singleton, who has worked on previous Republican presidential campaigns including Mitt Romney and Ben Carson, remained disenchanted. Singleton said he believed Haley was right that her questioner was a plant. But he didn’t think that was an excuse for fumbling the answer.
“She should’ve been able to answer the damn question and move on,” he said.
He added that her comments likely alienated moderate Republicans and swing voters she desperately needed to mount a successful challenge for the nomination.
“She had a chance to be competitive even though she was always likely to lose [the nomination]. However, that’s over now. She’s toast,” Singleton said.
Not all Republicans of color who spoke to POLITICO thought the moment would trip up Haley’s campaign. Though arguing that she could have been more nuanced in her answer, conservative talk show host Armstrong Williams called the episode a teachable moment.
“There were so many other issues that caused the Civil War, whether it be states’ rights, the role of our federal government at the time, … the economy [Americans at that time] felt was in shambles,” Williams said. “But what she has to realize is all these issues, no matter what they were, were inextricably bound to the institution of slavery. She cannot separate slavery from any of these issues no matter how many she mentions.”
But, Williams added, he didn’t think the episode would torpedo her campaign.
“No, nor should it,” Williams said.
“Listen, Nikki Haley is not a racist. She’s not a bigot. She’s a politician,” he said. “And sometimes politicians do what politicians do and they pay the price for it. And she’s paid the price for not being the person of courage and having the moral clarity to speak the truth.”
For Republicans of color, the Haley maelstrom was frustrating in part because she’s not the first GOP candidate who has been tripped up by the issue of slavery.
In August, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis found himself in the crosshairs of fellow Republicans of color after his state issued revised guidelines requiring teachers to instruct some school-age children that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
Among others, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), took issue with the instructions, saying the personal benefit characterization was “wrong and needs to be adjusted.”
The DeSantis camp dug in, saying Donalds, who is Black, was parroting talking points of Vice President Kamala Harris. It led to a slew of Black Republicans coming to Donalds’ defense and openly questioning the viability of the DeSantis campaign.
DeSantis’ campaign was one of several that piled on Haley after her remarks, with the Florida governor calling her response “incomprehensible word salad.”
Still, it is unclear how big an impact it will have with voters in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Some Republicans said a stumble like this, with just 18 days before the Iowa Caucus, is something Haley could ill afford.
“Why Nikki Haley felt the need to sidestep a question that should’ve been a lay up is beyond me,” said Gen Z GOP activist CJ Pearson.
He pointed to a common pushback by conservatives: that southern Democrats were defenders of the institution of slavery before splintering off from their party brethren.
“We are the party of Lincoln, the party of abolition. We should stand on that, unapologetically and unequivocally,” said Pearson.
And as for blunting her momentum, he added that the Haley camp had cause to be concerned.
“I will say that a lot of independent voters who have rallied behind her probably woke up with a lot more pause this morning about her candidacy than they went to sleep with.”