US Politics

Ron DeSantis is in survival mode as Nikki Haley battles Trump in New Hampshire

Author: Matt Dixon, Natasha Korecki and Jonathan Allen Source: NBC News
January 21, 2024 at 08:54
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis takes questions from reporters today in South Carolina.Jeffrey Collins / AP
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis takes questions from reporters today in South Carolina.Jeffrey Collins / AP

Campaign insiders are pinning their hopes on next month's South Carolina primary.

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Ron DeSantis doesn’t have to win next week’s New Hampshire primary. But he needs Nikki Haley to lose.

That’s the view inside the Florida governor’s inner circle on the heels of a distant second-place showing Monday in the Iowa caucuses that nonetheless allowed DeSantis to say he got his “ticket punched” to continue campaigning. His two-point margin over former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley was thinner than his advisers had hoped for but far better than the death knell of the third-place finish they had feared.

“He’s staying in,” a DeSantis supporter familiar with the campaign’s thinking told NBC News. “If Nikki loses New Hampshire — which is her best chance out of all states to win — and loses her home state of South Carolina right after, she will need to get out and we get our two-man race.” 

DeSantis advisers told NBC News that the campaign is busy collecting data and plotting a post-Iowa path forward through at least the South Carolina primary in late February. Inside a DeSantis finance team meeting at the Surety Hotel in Des Moines, Iowa, Tuesday morning, campaign manager James Uthmeier painted the picture of a difficult, but manageable, fundraising environment for the campaign, according to two sources familiar with the meeting.

“Going to be tough sledding,” another DeSantis supporter familiar with the thinking said. “The sentiment is we have and can raise the resources to get through South Carolina.” 

So, in an upside-down political season, DeSantis must now root for former President Donald Trump — who trounced his rivals by taking 51% of the vote in Iowa — to win a second consecutive contest, this one in New Hampshire. No Republican has ever lost the party’s nomination after winning both states, and Trump’s train shows no signs of impending mechanical failure.

One Republican money-bundler supportive of DeSantis thinks the governor's campaign will be over once the votes are tallied in New Hampshire next Tuesday.

“It’s a poor showing. There’s nothing to crow about barely nudging out Nikki Haley and getting blown out by 30,” the bundler said of DeSantis’ 21% vote share in Iowa. As for the ticket DeSantis says he punched, the bundler said: “That’s an economy class ticket out. That’s coach, right near the bathroom.”

Moreover, DeSantis is devoting few resources to New Hampshire — a state custom-built for Haley to make a run at Trump — as he casts his eyes toward South Carolina. His campaign and its allied super PACs had reserved no air time in New Hampshire through Tuesday. 

At best, DeSantis is in full-on survival mode now. At worst, he's living in fantasy land.

His team is rallying around the idea that he still has a path to the nomination if he can get into an extended one-on-one fight with Trump across the country.

“Nikki Haley spent more money per vote than any other candidate in Iowa to get a disastrous third — proving no amount of money can erase her record of caving to the left on every issue important to conservatives," DeSantis campaign communications director Andrew Romeo said in a statement. "While it may take a few more weeks to fully get there, this will be a two-person race soon enough."

It is, some of his allies acknowledge, a tack that will require DeSantis to keep hanging around through lean times and hope he can help Trump defeat Haley.

“My suspicion is that they’re going to try to take a big enough bite out of her [Haley] here in New Hampshire, because when she goes down to South Carolina, she’s not going to win her own state,” said Jason Osborne, the state House majority leader and a top DeSantis surrogate in New Hampshire. "She continues to just be in the way at this point."

One person with knowledge of internal deliberations said DeSantis has too many people around him not willing to tell him the hard truths about the road ahead.

“Now he’s in South Carolina. His team around him should be saying ‘No, it’s time to bow out,’” the person said. “This fight isn’t worth fighting.”

At the same time, Haley is doing her best to persuade voters that DeSantis is toast. She has said she won’t debate him in New Hampshire unless Trump takes the stage, too, a move that frames the Florida governor as a nuisance more than a rival. 

Haley has repeatedly framed the contest as a two-person race, with her team arguing that if DeSantis staked everything in Iowa –– with allies spending some $100 million –– and couldn't win there, then there's no path for him. Haley has painted both New Hampshire and South Carolina as strong states for her while DeSantis is not polling well in either. 

The reality is that their relative parity in Iowa has left Haley and DeSantis back where they started, giving Trump a boost by fighting with each other. 

A DeSantis donor told NBC News that the campaign’s fundraising strategy is on life support but will continue to focus on Florida-based donors that need him as governor, including the state’s lobbyists and their clients. It’s a group that rarely gives to federal campaigns but that he has tapped into intensely in recent months as his national fundraising network has fizzled.

“There is not enough of that [Florida-level] money to be credible,” said the donor. “He blew through a lot more than $100 million, and what are they going to raise from those guys? $500,000, maybe? We might be able to do some super PAC money, but it’s just not as fungible.” 

“This is the most unusual presidential funding strategy I’ve seen,” the donor added.

DeSantis went directly to South Carolina after the Iowa caucuses, a rare move and a clear signal of how his campaign views next week’s New Hampshire primary. One ally familiar with the campaign’s thinking said that DeSantis would push staff into South Carolina while Trump and Haley are battling to win New Hampshire, giving the Florida governor “a week’s jump” on the field in the Palmetto State.

The hope, the ally said, is that DeSantis will get traction in South Carolina "while Trump is punching Haley" in New Hampshire. 

Ultimately, DeSantis' team sees the Iowa results as a validation of his candidacy and a repudiation of Haley's. 

"Despite spending $24 million in false negative ads against Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley couldn’t buy herself the kill shot she so desperately wanted last night," Romeo said. "Now she will be out of this race after failing to win her home state on February 24.” 

DeSantis already had a smaller ground operation in New Hampshire than he did in Iowa, in part because the state’s electorate — which includes independents who can vote in the Republican primary — is more moderate and less receptive to DeSantis’ brawling demeanor and focus on culture wars that animate the far right.

DeSantis did take a shot at Haley on Tuesday morning for saying she would only participate in an ABC News hosted debate in New Hampshire if Trump was on the stage. DeSantis said in an X post that Haley, who has participated in every Republican debate so far, is “afraid to debate.”

“There’s a reason this is a two-person race between Donald Trump and Nikki Haley,” said Haley spokeswoman Olivia Perez-Cubas. “Because our campaign is living in reality. Ron DeSantis’ campaign is living in Disney’s Magic Kingdom.”

For Haley, meanwhile, New Hampshire represents the best chance she has to win an early state nominating contest and slightly erode what has been Trump’s seemingly unstoppable momentum. She has the endorsement of New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, and in recent public polling has trimmed Trump’s lead to single digits, Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s departure from the race last week is also expected to help Haley, as his voters are ideologically much more likely to gravitate to her than to Trump or DeSantis.

It’s why DeSantis’ campaign sees a Haley stumble in New Hampshire as key to its own political math. While a win for her here would effectively knock DeSantis out of the race, a loss would fuel DeSantis’ hopes of out-performing expectations in South Carolina and generating a jolt of momentum. 

“We are going to focus on South Carolina,” said a DeSantis supporter. “Where we think Ron DeSantis’ record will resonate with the large veteran population and Teddy Roosevelt environmental Republicans.”

DeSantis in the past has touted helping secure record restoration funding as governor for the Everglades, but environmental issues have so far played no role in the Republican nominating contest.

The DeSantis campaign was handed a messaging gift Monday night when media outlets started to project that Trump had won Iowa before all of the votes had been cast, a move made because of the former president’s commanding lead. Quickly the DeSantis campaign started to frame it as a direct attack by media outlets, a grievance he has routinely used going back to his 2022 re-election.

“They threw everything but the kitchen sink at us,” DeSantis said in remarks after the caucuses. “They spent almost $50 million attacking us, no one has faced that much through Iowa. The media was against us, they were writing our obituary months ago.”

“They even called the election before people got to vote,” DeSantis continued.

Some DeSantis-backers think it’s something the campaign will hang onto, at least in the coming days.

“I think the early call gives them some moral standing to say that this [Iowa results] are bulls---. It probably knocked his numbers down a few points,” said the DeSantis donor. “I could not believe it. People had not even finished the speeches in some places. But, s--- happens. You have to deal with it.”

DeSantis has also tried to undermine Trump’s huge win in Iowa by noting that frigid temperatures led to very low turnout, and that some Democrats in Iowa said they would switch over and caucus for Haley.

"Her support has been inflated by Democrats, financially and with voters, in Iowa and New Hampshire," Slater Bayliss, a DeSantis bundler and adviser, said. 

“You can’t rely on non-Republicans to win a Republican nomination, but especially against Donald Trump,” DeSantis told NBC News on Tuesday morning. “How are you going to be able to compete in that situation?”

Hard truths have forced DeSantis to continuously reassess what constitutes victory for him. At one point, he appeared to be a legitimate threat to Trump in New Hampshire. Now, he must hope voters see him as a legitimate candidate in the state and beyond. 

Osborne, the New Hampshire legislator, suggested DeSantis' persistence — his decision to stay in the race at a potential cost to his own future ambitions — reflects a commitment to his view of what's best for the country. 

"If all he cared about was himself, he would not be running," Osborne said. "But think he’s got a larger purpose in mind.”

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