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Nikki Haley is rising. Does it matter?

The battle for second place in the GOP presidential race is far from meaningless.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is having a moment.

As Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ star falls in the Republican presidential race, Haley’s is rising. She’s catching up to him in national polls, neck and neck with him in Iowa and trouncing him in New Hampshire. As the GOP’s White House candidate pool shrinks, she’s snatching up megadonors who as recently as this summer may have been expected to go with DeSantis.

Haley scored another victory Tuesday, when the political network Americans for Prosperity Action, an outfit founded by the billionaire right-wing activist Koch brothers, issued an endorsement of her. “In sharp contrast to recent elections that were dominated by the negative baggage of Donald Trump and in which good candidates lost races that should have been won, Nikki Haley, at the top of the ticket, would boost candidates up and down the ballot, winning the key independent and moderate voters that Trump has no chance to win,” AFP Action senior adviser Emily Seidel wrote in a memo announcing the endorsement.

Haley and DeSantis are effectively competing for the “In case of emergency, break glass” position.

The endorsement matters both materially and symbolically. AFP Action has deep pockets, and it has already spent a significant amount of money on the race. It has spent $4 million on ads so far in the election cycle and raised more than $70 million in the first half of the year, according to NBC News And as The New York Times reports, the endorsement will strengthen her organizational capacity significantly by giving her access to a direct mail program, field workers and phone bank operations. More broadly, AFP Action’s decision is a signal that in the “invisible primary” — during which powerful donors, activists and party elites try to pick candidates before the actual primaries begin?— Haley is moving ahead of DeSantis.

As exciting as all this news is for Haley, it shouldn’t breed delusions about her winning the Republican nomination. Given the extraordinary size of Trump’s lead in the polls, she isn’t competing for front-runner status, but rather for the status of front-runner against Trump. Realistically speaking, the best outcome she can hope for at the moment is to have her face representing the runner-up in most state primary results. Which raises the question: Does any of this matter??

It does, for a few reasons.

The giant X factor hovering over the Republican presidential race is the looming collision of Trump’s trial calendar and the political calendar. Trump’s criminal trials kick off during the primary season, and while his indictments have done nothing to hurt his standing, theoretically Republican voters could grow warier of voting for him as the burdens of his legal troubles sink in. Republican voters don’t have to stop liking Trump for him to lose the Republican primary race; they simply have to start thinking that he’s unelectable. Such concerns are more likely to emerge if Trump is convicted or sentenced before the Republican National Convention; it’s hard to envision a candidate behind bars and in the White House at the same time. It doesn’t seem likely as of now, but if Trump does hemorrhage voters because of his criminal trials, the non-Trump front-runner will be best positioned to usurp him. In other words, Haley and DeSantis are effectively competing for the “In case of emergency, break glass” position among Republican voters.

Haley’s rise in popularity also strengthens her case for being picked as the vice presidential candidate. Haley’s assets are exactly Trump’s weaknesses: She has the polish of a conventional general election candidate and codes as a (relative) moderate, and she has the capacity to engender trust from the kinds of MAGA-skeptical suburban Republicans who fled the GOP during the Trump era. This is still an unlikely scenario, given that Trump would have plenty of options, and it’s hard to imagine him channeling the humility required to partner with a rival. But her growing popularity makes her an increasingly defensible pick.

Even if Haley never makes a Trump veep shortlist, she could still shape the way he thinks about that selection process. Haley is a reminder that there is still some appetite in the Republican electorate for a candidate who isn’t just a Trump derivative, like DeSantis or former biotech executive Vivek Ramaswamy. There is still interest in, or at least an openness to, more traditional Republican candidates with non-nationalist attitudes on social spending, foreign policy interventionism and political culture. If Trump becomes the nominee, a strong Haley showing could influence the kind of candidate he might take on board.

Even if none of this ends up happening, Haley could be positioning herself to be a top-tier candidate in 2028. Remember, it took Joe Biden three presidential races to finally win. That being said, given how rapidly the political landscape is shifting and the intensity of today’s populist currents, it’s just as easy to imagine Haley's small window shutting completely before then. What's clear at the moment, however, is that DeSantis' window appears to be shutting right before our eyes.

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