Haley Walks Treacherous Road for G.O.P. Women

EXETER, N.H. — According to Nikki Haley, bullies are best subdued by a counter kick — in heels. Achieving a new vision for the country requires the leadership of a “tough-as-nails woman.” And generational change starts with putting a “badass woman in the White House.”

In ways both overt and subtle, Ms. Haley, the former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina governor, is setting up her 2024 presidential bid as the latest test of the Republican Party’s attitudes about female leaders. No woman has ever won a state Republican presidential primary, let alone the party’s nomination — and Ms. Haley is the first one to mount a bid since former President Donald J. Trump, who regularly attacked women in extraordinarily graphic and vulgar terms, rose to the head of the party.

The early days of Ms. Haley’s campaign, which she announced on Tuesday, quickly illustrated the challenges facing Republican women. For decades, female leaders in both parties have struggled with what political scientists call the double bind — the difficulty of proving one’s strength and competence, while meeting voters’ expectations of warmth, or of being “likable enough,” as former President Barack Obama once said of Hillary Clinton during a 2008 primary debate.

But for Republican women, that double bind comes with a twist. There are conservative voters who harbor traditional views about femininity while expecting their candidates to seem “tough.” Several strategists suggested Republican primary voters would have little patience if a female candidate were to level accusations of sexism toward another Republican. And Mr. Trump, who remains a powerful figure in the party and is running again, has already attacked Ms. Haley with criticism some view as gendered.

Even before she entered the race, Mr. Trump dismissed Ms. Haley as “overly ambitious,” which struck some observers as sexist. And soon after her official announcement, he suggested her appointment as U.N. ambassador was less a reflection of her credentials than of his desire to see her male lieutenant governor take over as governor. She also confronted a male CNN anchor, who asserted that Ms. Haley and women her age — 51, decades younger than Mr. Trump or President Biden — were past their “prime.”

Ms. Haley, who could be joined by other female contenders, including Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, is operating within a G.O.P. that has often dismissed debate about identity as the purview of the left, and has, in many corners, increasingly lambasted discussions of gender and race as “wokeness.”

During her campaign trail debut this past week, Ms. Haley played into this trend, promoting a country that is “strong and proud, not weak and woke.” And while she winked at the history-making potential of her candidacy — “I will simply say this: May the best woman win” — she was quick to distance herself from “identity politics.”

“I don’t believe in that. And I don’t believe in glass ceilings, either. I believe in creating a country where anyone can do anything,” she said Wednesday while campaigning in Charleston, S.C.

Ms. Haley faces many hurdles that have nothing to do with gender. Mr. Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who is generally seen as Mr. Trump’s strongest potential adversary, lead her significantly in early polling. And her occasional criticisms of Mr. Trump, after serving in his administration and often heaping praise on him, may leave her ill-defined in the eyes of voters.

Many of the most prominent women in the party — Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a conspiracy theory-minded Republican from Georgia; Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee; Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, the chair of the House Republican conference — have risen by emulating or embracing Mr. Trump’s hard-right politics, not by challenging him.

“If you want to know, what do you have to do to be an influential woman in the G.O.P. today, compare Marjorie Taylor Greene to Liz Cheney,” said Jennifer Horn, the former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party who now considers herself an independent. “Which one of them actually brings gravitas and experience and genuine commitment to democracy to the table? And which one of them is currently serving in Congress?”

Which Republicans Are Eyeing the 2024 Presidential Election?

The G.O.P. primary begins. For months, former President Donald J. Trump has been the lone Republican officially running for president in 2024, but that’s no longer the case with Nikki Haley entering the race. It’s the first major Republican challenge to Mr. Trump, but unlikely to be the last. Here’s a look at the potential field:

Nikki Haley. The former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador under Mr. Trump, Ms. Haley has called for “generational change” in the party after three disappointing election cycles for Republicans. But in early surveys, she is polling in single digits. Here are five things to know about Ms. Haley.

Ron DeSantis. The Florida governor is the most formidable potential Trump challenger so far. He has become a household name by attacking what he calls liberal orthodoxies in government and culture. A DeSantis campaign probably won’t arrive for months, after Florida’s legislative session ends and Mr. DeSantis has new policy victories to promote.

Mike Pence. The former vice president has stumped for midterm candidates, toured early-voting states to sign a memoir and poached staff members from rivals. But his popularity with Republican voters has fallen since he refused to try to block the 2020 election, and he is reluctant to criticize Mr. Trump. Mr. Pence appears in no hurry to make a 2024 decision.

Mike Pompeo. Mr. Pompeo has an imposing résumé: congressman, C.I.A. director, secretary of state. A new memoir allowed him to tour and test out a presidential message. A home-state paper, The Kansas City Star, said the book reads “like a guy at a bar trying to show his toughness.” Mr. Pompeo has said that he would decide on a bid “in the next handful of months.”

Other Republicans. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, former Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland and Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire are seen as weighing 2024 bids. The possible field is rounded out by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia and Liz Cheney, who lost her House seat after helping lead the Capitol riot inquiry.

(Ms. Cheney, a sharp Trump critic who lost her congressional primary last year, could also seek the presidency, though she would have a difficult road in the current Republican Party. “These days, for the most part, men are running the world,” Ms. Cheney said in a speech last summer. “It is really not going that well.”)

Asked for comment, Ms. Greene said that Ms. Horn, Ms. Cheney and Ms. Haley did not “represent the current Republican Party.”

Juliana Bergeron, the New Hampshire Republican national committeewoman, said she saw Ms. Haley as a credible candidate.

But, she said: “There are people in our party that want to put women back into the 1960s, and so therefore I think it makes it somewhat more difficult for women in our party. And I wish I didn’t have to say that, but that’s how I feel.”

Some Republicans see female candidates as their party’s best messengers on issues like abortion or supporting more parental involvement in schools — which could bolster a woman’s chance of getting on the G.O.P. ticket — even as many stress that they don’t factor gender into their political decisions.

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“Conservative women will not vote based on gender,” said Penny Nance, chief executive of Concerned Women for America, an organization that opposes abortion rights.

Those sentiments were easy to find at a Haley campaign event inside the town hall in Exeter, N.H., on Thursday night.

“You want the best person for the job,” said Susan Ford, 67, who said that Ms. Haley’s gender was not a reason to vote for her, but that she was impressed by her experience. Asked if she believed the country was ready for a woman as president, she replied, “Yeah, if it’s the right one.”

Kathryn Job, who said she was a political independent in her 70s, was less sure that a female candidate could win.

“I don’t think that we’ve gotten past that yet,” said Ms. Job. “There’s still a bias.”

Voters in both parties overwhelmingly tell pollsters they would vote for a woman for president, and a 2019 Gallup poll found that Democrats were only slightly more likely than Republicans to say they would do so. But there are signs that Republicans are less likely to see being a woman as an advantage. A recent USA Today/Suffolk University poll found that among voters who expressed a gender preference for their presidential candidates, Republican women were far more likely to prefer a man.

To appeal to voters with strict views of gender roles, Republican female candidates must be “tough enough to meet this masculinity standard, but also ‘woman enough’ to align with traditional stereotypes of femininity,” said Kelly Dittmar, who is the director for research and a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics. “In the Republican electorate where you have more traditional gender beliefs and alignment with masculinity, you have to do both.”

She pointed to former Gov. Sarah Palin’s claim that the only difference between a “hockey mom” and a pit bull was lipstick, or Ms. Haley’s reference to wearing heels.

Indeed, footwear has become acceptable code for gender in the G.O.P. While Ms. Haley has joked about the pain her heels inflict on antagonists, Ms. Greene has mocked Ms. Haley and Ms. Cheney as the equivalent of a “Bush in heels” to deride them as moderates.

(By contrast, Vice President Kamala Harris, a Democrat, memorably campaigned in Converse sneakers during the 2020 election.)

A Haley adviser, who would discuss the campaign’s approach to gender dynamics only on condition of anonymity, suggested there was no inconsistency between Ms. Haley’s discussing aspects of her identity and hoping to win votes because of her policies and experience.

The campaign declined to comment on some of the attacks she has faced, including from Mr. Trump, but she has made clear she is wary of anything that could be seen as claiming victimhood.

“In a free country like ours, we are not victims unless we choose to be,” Ms. Haley wrote in her recent book, “If You Want Something Done: Leadership Lessons From Bold Women.” “We should not fall into a trap of thinking that a woman’s road to empowerment lies with someone else righting a wrong.”

While it may be difficult for Republican women to accuse another Republican of sexism, perceived derogatory comments from Democrats or the news media are another matter. On Thursday, Ms. Haley was unambiguous in her criticism of Don Lemon of CNN, calling him a “sexist middle-aged” anchor after he suggested she was past her “prime.” (He later expressed regret for the comment.).

Ms. Haley has overcome bias before. A daughter of Indian immigrants, she sustained vicious and sometimes racist attacks on her way to becoming the first female governor of South Carolina.

Ms. Haley’s entry into the race marks the first time Republican primary voters will see a woman vying for the presidential nomination in seven years. In 2016, Mr. Trump used sexist language to attack Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard — “Look at that face!” he mocked. “Would anyone vote for that?” — before winning a general election despite bragging about groping women without their consent.

(Asked about criticisms that Mr. Trump had made sexist remarks about Ms. Haley and others, Steven Cheung, a Trump spokesman, said the former president had “advocated for the advancement of women throughout his life.”)

In the 2020 campaign, amid a rise of female political activism in response to the Trump administration, six female candidates sought the Democratic nomination — the most ever in a presidential primary — but struggled with questions about their general election viability from voters who feared that the country was too sexist to elect a woman.

Voters across party lines are “more likely to think their friends and neighbors would prefer a man than they themselves say they would prefer a man,” said Christine Matthews, a pollster who has worked with Republican candidates and studied gender dynamics. “There’s this feeling, like, ‘Well, even if I’m ready to vote for a woman president, I’m not really sure everyone else is.’ And that holds women back.”

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