Editor’s Note: Gavin J. Smith is a public relations professional and political strategist. He is CEO of Gavin James Public Affairs, a public relations and marketing consulting firm in Lexington, South Carolina. During the Trump administration, he was press secretary for the Department of Labor and deputy communications director for the Department of Health and Human Services. Gavin also previously served as an intern and interim executive assistant in the Executive Office of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion on CNN. This piece has been updated to reflect the latest news.
Nikki R. Haley, the former United States ambassador to the United Nations and former South Carolina governor, announced her 2024 presidential bid in a video on Tuesday.
Haley, whose camp has been distributing invitations to a “special announcement” set for February 15 in Charleston, South Carolina, is the first Republican to officially declare a challenge against former President Donald Trump for the 2024 Republican nomination.
As someone who has worked for both Haley and Trump, I believe Haley is exactly the right candidate for the Republican Party at this moment – and fellow Republicans should think twice before underestimating her.
Haley was an unknown in 2004 when she took on and defeated the longest serving Republican in the South Carolina House of Representatives by running a grassroots campaign that positioned her as an energetic and fresh-faced underdog.
Her star rose quickly as the majority whip in the South Carolina General Assembly, and she jumped into the South Carolina gubernatorial race in 2009.
In the good ole’ boys club that is South Carolina politics, Haley wasn’t taken seriously as a gubernatorial candidate by many until former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, visited the Palmetto State in May 2010 and endorsed her.
Palin, who also appeared in a campaign ad calling Haley a “strong, pro-family, pro-life, pro-second amendment, pro-development, conservative reformer” helped boost Haley’s campaign, which went from being on life-support to frontrunner-status in a field of all White male opponents.
Haley shocked the political establishment in South Carolina when she won the Republican primary just a month later. In November 2010, Haley trounced her Democratic challenger in the general election – earning her the distinction of becoming both the first female governor of South Carolina and the second governor in the country of Indian descent.
Under Haley’s leadership, South Carolina thrived. Unemployment rates fell and South Carolina’s Department of Commerce announced tens of thousands of jobs had been created under her tenure and billions in capital investment flowed into the state. She also spearheaded efforts to pass a law that added transparency to the legislative process and required South Carolina lawmakers to vote on the record more frequently.
In the aftermath of the 2015 mass-shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, Haley worked tirelessly to unify our state and successfully led the efforts to remove the Confederate Flag from the South Carolina State House grounds.
Later that year, she was calm and composed leading the state when Hurricane Matthew made landfall and historic floods wreaked havoc on residents of our state.
Despite these accomplishments, and a very successful reelection campaign in 2014, Trump is said to have rejected Haley as a potential secretary of state, citing a “complexion problem,” and noting the “blotch marks on her cheeks” in a conversation with then-Chief of Staff John Kelly, according to the book “The Divider,” by New Yorker writer Susan Glasser and New York Times’ Peter Baker.
He opted instead to appoint her the US ambassador to the United Nations, where she quickly became a leader in the Republican Party for her no-nonsense and direct approach to diplomacy. From cutting more than $285 million from the UN budget to leading the charge to pull out of the disgraced UN Human Rights Council, Haley quickly built a name for herself as a successful US diplomat who got things done.
When she resigned in 2018, she was one of the few Trump administration officials to stay in the good graces of the former president, with the New York Times editorial page praising Haley as “that rarest of Trump appointees: one who can exit the administration with her dignity largely intact.”
But Haley’s relationship with Trump has grown more complicated since she left the administration. She spoke out against him after the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol before changing her tune in October 2021, telling the Wall Street Journal, “We need him in the Republican Party. I don’t want us to go back to the days before Trump.”
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And when the news broke that she was expected to announce a run for president, Trump took a shot at her by sharing a video of Haley from April 2021, when she said she would “not run if President Trump ran” in 2024. When Fox News host Bret Baier brought up those same comments last month, Haley responded by calling for generational change, citing issues like inflation and crime and saying, “A lot has changed.”
Ultimately, a dust-up between the former president and any Republican challenger is inevitable. What matters is that Haley is a formidable candidate who brings the executive experience from her days as governor as well as the foreign policy experience from her time as ambassador. This experience, paired with her ability to bring people together, her background as a mom and a military spouse, and her track record of fighting the uphill battle of running against old white men – is exactly why she is the right candidate, at the right moment, for Republicans to rally behind as we look to win back the White House in 2024.