'I feel right in doing this': Nikki Haley donors keep giving, despite Trump's lead

U.S. Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks at a campaign stop in Elgin, South Carolina, U.S., February 12, 2024.

Julia Nikhinson | Reuters

As Nikki Haley falls behind Donald Trump in the Republican presidential primary, something strange is happening: Many of her donors are sticking with her.

Sure, some big money has given up on the former South Carolina governor, who refuses to drop out despite losing every contest so far and falling 20 points shy of winning her own state last week.

But other Haley donors say that giving to her campaign has become about more than just backing a Republican with the best shot at winning: They see their donations as a way to protest Trump’s takeover of their party.

“It’s not that I think she has a decent chance of winning, but I think she’s the most effective counterforce to Trump’s talking points,” said one of those donors, who gave a six-figure contribution to SFA Fund, Inc., a pro-Haley political action committee.

“Even if she doesn’t win, I feel right in doing this,” said the donor, who was granted anonymity to speak freely.

A top Haley fundraiser told CNBC that donors keep supporting Haley because she represents the “Reagan wing” of the GOP — a group that has been all but abandoned by the GOP since Trump first became president in 2016.

That Reagan wing, which stands in contrast to the isolationist foreign policy and protectionist economics that define Trump’s brand of populism, “isn’t going away,” the fundraiser said.

“Her candidacy says, ‘We exist, too.'”

The same fundraiser likened Haley’s current chances to those of the New York Jets, a football team that hasn’t made the playoffs in over a decade. “They never make the playoffs, but you still have a chance.”

The Jets are owned by Woody Johnson, a longtime ally of Trump.

Paul Levy, a founder of private equity firm JLL Partners and a Haley donor, said he and other donors like him believe she represents the Reagan wing of the GOP. “I think there’s a lot to that,” Levy said.

He said he sided with Haley on arming Ukraine, a key point of divergence between more traditional conservatives and many of Trump’s most vocal supporters.

His support for Haley is less about her being able to beat Trump with delegates, he said, and more about her policies, her experience, and how she could be a favorite for the GOP nomination if Trump dropped out.

“I think it’s more of the latter than the former, because clearly the delegate count isn’t going well right now,” Levy said.

Facing four criminal cases and at least two likely trials this year, Trump is in an unprecedented and delicate situation as a candidate for the nation’s highest office.

Presiding Judge Lewis Kaplan postpones the trial because one juror and a parent of one of Trump’s lawyers became ill during the second civil trial where E. Jean Carroll accused former U.S. Presiden Donald Trump of raping her decades ago, at Manhattan Federal Court in New York City, U.S., January 22, 2024 in this courtroom sketch. 

Jane Rosenberg | Reuters

Levy donated $100,000 to SFA Fund in January, according to Federal Election Commission records. He told CNBC he gave more money to the PAC prior to the South Carolina primary, but would not say how much or when the donation took place.

This ongoing support for Haley’s campaign, including $1 million raised the night she lost her home state to Trump, suggests that Trump may have a more difficult time uniting the Republican party around him than he and his allies envision.

“I’ve never seen the Republican Party so unified as it is right now,” Trump said in a speech after his South Carolina win.

The numbers, however, told a different story. Haley won 40% of the primary vote to Trump’s 60% on Saturday, a decisive loss for Haley but not the kind of party unity that Trump projects.

Like Haley’s donors, her campaign sees a race that is about more than just who wins.

 “Nikki is fighting to make America normal again. She’s reminding voters who we are as Americans so that we can move forward as a united country and party,” said Olivia Perez-Cubas, a spokeswoman for Haley. “She’s running so our kids and grandkids inherit a strong and proud America, and her message is resonating with millions of voters.”

Some donors, however, are clearly having second thoughts about Haley. The most public of these is Americans for Prosperity Action, the Koch network’s political arm, which revealed Sunday that it would no longer fund Haley’s presidential bid.

And one donor, who gave SFA a six-figure contribution ahead of the New Hampshire primary, told CNBC on Monday that they will hold off on spending any more.

“I think we would need a change before we would do anything meaningful,” the donor said, envisioning a possible medical or legal issue befalling Trump, which would make Haley “more viable.”

The donor explained that their decision to back Haley was motivated chiefly by opposition to Trump, but that so far they felt like their money had done little to impact the race. “I don’t know, at this point, that it does much,” they said.

If the general election in November is between Trump and Democratic President Joe Biden, they said, “I don’t think I’ll vote.”

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