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Can weight of Koch-backed network help Haley overcome Trump?

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Can weight of Koch-backed network help Haley overcome Trump?

Dec 06, 2023 | 11:04 am ET
By Abraham Kenmore
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Can weight of Koch-backed network help Haley overcome Trump?
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AFP Action volunteers head out in Richland County on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023. (Provided by AFP Action)

COLUMBIA — After a day of knocking on doors in South Carolina’s capital city, the state organizer for a major conservative group newly throwing its weight behind former Gov. Nikki Haley was optimistic.

“Primary voters aren’t all behind Trump, and I think that’s been evident,” said Candace Carroll, senior adviser to Americans for Prosperity Action, which last week announced its endorsement of Haley.

“Even where we’ve gotten a couple people who said they are in favor of Trump, it’s very soft support here, and they were open to someone else,” she told SC Daily Gazette. While a reporter accompanied door-knockers, roughly a half-dozen people who answered were willing to discuss their preferences among GOP candidates.

Can weight of Koch-backed network help Haley overcome Trump?
Former Gov. Nikki Haley accepts flowers from a girl wearing a “Nikki Haley for president” baseball cap at the Statehouse on Monday, Oct. 30, 2023. (Mary Ann Chastain/Special to the SC Daily Gazette)

Across the country, groups backing Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (who poll in second or third place, depending on the state) are deploying thousands of volunteers to try and boost their candidate over former President Donald Trump, who continues to be the dominant frontrunner in the 2024 Republican presidential field.

AFP Action, the candidate-backing arm of the group founded by prominent conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, only joined the race Nov. 28. The mega political action committee, known as a super PAC, broke with its past practice of avoiding presidential campaigns to endorse Haley. (Super PACS can collect and spend as much as they want in support of a candidate but, by law, can’t directly coordinate with the campaign.)

AFP Action has chapters in all 50 states, allowing them to “expand pretty quickly,” Carroll said.

Volunteers were out in neighborhoods the day after the endorsement, with a concentration on early primary states.

According to the memo endorsing Haley, the decision followed AFP Action volunteers collecting input from 6 million voters since February on how they’re choosing which candidate to support.

In South Carolina alone, AFP Action has 84,000 volunteers.

By comparison, organizers with Never Back Down, the super PAC backing DeSantis, say it has almost 1,000 volunteers in the Palmetto State and had knocked on almost 940,000 doors as of Sunday. That’s in addition to more than 1.2 million door knocks combined in other early-voting states Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. The PAC has also launched a training school for canvassers who could be sent to key states.

Then there are the campaigns themselves. According to the Haley campaign, it has “hundreds” of volunteers in South Carolina. The DeSantis campaign did not share numbers.

‘The gap is so large’

Despite all the volunteers, Scott Huffmon, who runs the Winthrop Poll, said it may not make much difference in the end.

“It’s not going to be a massive game changer because the gap is so large,” said Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop University and founder of the Center for Public Opinion & Policy Research.

But the endorsement is important. It signals to donors who oppose Trump where to put their money, Huffmon said, adding that the canvassing should help.

“Direct engagement does make the most difference,” he said. “But again, you’re talking a few percentage points. And, in a close race, that can make the difference. But as it is, for Nikki Haley, it’s just one of many things that has to fall into place.”

Other pieces include strong performances in Iowa and New Hampshire, he said.

South Carolina’s first-in-the-South GOP presidential primary on Feb. 24 falls fourth on the Republican voting calendar, after Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. However, due to a quirk in Nevada, her near-guaranteed win of that state’s primary won’t help her with delegates.

According to the latest Winthrop Poll, Trump is leading the South Carolina primary with just under 50% support among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. Haley is in second place, with 18.7% support, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has 12.5% among the same group.

AFP Action put out a poll last week showing Haley gaining in the polls, although still trailing Trump. The Trump campaign touted the poll on Monday, sending it out as proof of the former president’s “dominating advantage.”

Neal Thigpen, a retired Francis Marion University political scientist, said catching up to Trump may be impossible.

“I’d still be surprised if (Haley) beats Trump in South Carolina, but I think she’s firmly in second place now,” said the former Republican activist. “If Trump is going to be stopped somehow, and I really kind of doubt that’s going to happen … (Haley) represents the last best hope to stop him.”

Because AFP Action has not previously backed a presidential candidate, there is no direct analogy for what its support may mean, although the super PAC has committed to spending millions on advertising. In its endorsement memo, the group promises to bring an “extensive mail, digital, and connected television campaigns” to support Haley.

It had $75 million cash on hand, as of its mid-year financial disclosure filed in June.

Of the U.S. House and U.S. Senate candidates the super PAC supported in the 2022 election cycle, 25 won and 17 lost, according to data from Open Secrets.

Winners included Rep. Nancy Mace, who represents South Carolina’s coastal 1st District, where Haley also lives. AFP Action spent about $432,000 in Mace’s lopsided re-election. That contest also featured Haley endorsing Mace ahead of the GOP primary, while Trump endorsed her opponent.

Losses included former NFL player Herschel Walker in his failed bid last year to unseat Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in Georgia. AFP Action spent over $12 million on that race. Across all candidates, the PAC spent an average of $1.5 million on candidates it supported, according to data from Open Secrets.

Knocking on doors

As the SC Daily Gazette accompanied AFP Action organizers on the ground in an upscale Columbia neighborhood, several potential GOP voters who answered the door said they’re considering Haley. Others were considering Trump or deciding between the two.

The knocking wasn’t just random. Door-knockers went to the homes of people considered likely to vote in the GOP presidential contest, based on who voted in prior GOP primaries and data on registered voters new to the state.

“You know to be honest with you, I don’t like any of them, and I’m not being nasty,” said Denise Howard, a 69-year-old accountant. “Honestly, Nikki Haley has made more sense than anybody that I’ve seen so far.”

Howard said she thought President Joe Biden was a “really great guy” but not able to win re-election. Asked who she has supported previously, she said only that she did not vote for Trump.

Making the case for Haley, Carroll repeatedly told voters on their doorstep that Haley has the best chance of defeating Biden in November 2024, should she become the nominee.

She pointed to some polls showing her with a bigger lead in a one-to-one matchup against the current president than Trump or DeSantis. Carroll also thinks Haely can bring in a broader array of people, like suburban mothers, who disliked Trump.

Ultimately, if Haley is not the nominee, AFP Action will still play a role in the 2024 election, focusing on other races.

“But we are, you know, putting our full force of our grassroots community behind her,” Carroll said. “We are confident she will (win).”