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Haley signals a new direction for the GOP's national ticket

Former South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition Annual Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas, Nev., on Nov. 19, 2022.
Wade Vandervort
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AFP via Getty Images
Former South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition Annual Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas, Nev., on Nov. 19, 2022.

Republican women are poised to play a larger role than ever in the process that chooses their party's national ticket for 2024.

The most immediate symbol of this is Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who is expected to announce her candidacy for president on Wednesday. After her planned event in South Carolina, where she was governor from 2011 to 2017, Haley will spend the next two days in New Hampshire, the state that has held the first presidential preference primaries every four years since 1920.

Haley will be the first high-profile Republican to announce other than former President Trump, which means she will be challenging her former boss for their party's nomination.

But she is not the only woman from the ranks of well-known current and former officials who will matter in the next GOP nominating process — the first voting events of which are now just a year away.

Women on the right are finding national political audiences

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks during the National Rifle Association  annual convention at the George R. Brown Convention Center on May 27, 2022 in Houston.
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South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks during the National Rifle Association annual convention at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston on May 27, 2022.

Gov. Kristi Noem

Also widely expected to run is South Dakota's two-term Gov. Kristi Noem, a former member of Congress who has published a campaign-style memoir and taken on a variety of national issues from abortion to immigration and been critical of potential rivals for the nomination such as Florida's Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Like Haley, Noem has said in the past she would support Trump if he sought the party's nomination a third time. But, also like Haley, she declined to endorse him when he declared formally in November. Instead, Noem told The New York Times that Trump "does not offer the best chance" for the GOP in 2024.

Last month Noem said she is "not convinced that I need to run for president" — but she has kept the door open, and taken a succession of hardline, well-publicized stands on national issues such as abortion and immigration. Haley's announcement may increase the pressure on Noem to decide, or announce.

Then-Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), co-chair of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, delivers remarks during the panel's last public meeting on Dec. 19, 2022.
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Then-Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., co-chair of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, delivers remarks during the panel's last public meeting on Dec. 19, 2022.

Former Rep. Liz Cheney

Former Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, once a name in the conversation for speaker of the House or the national ticket, fell from grace when she defied her Republican colleagues and co-chaired the House Select Committee on the January 6th Attack on the Capitol. Cheney was at least as prominent as any member of that panel in condemning Trump and declared she would do "whatever it takes" to prevent his return to office.

That was taken by some as prelude to an intraparty challenge to the former president in 2024. But after Cheney lost her own primary in August, her future prospects seemed all but extinguished in the party she had long served (as had her father, former Vice President Richard Cheney).

Yet Cheney has vowed to remain active in national politics, and some believe she could reemerge as part of a third-party ticket.

Former U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) speaks at an "Our Bodies, Our Sports" rally to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX at Freedom Plaza on June 23, 2022 in Washington, D.C.
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Former U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, speaks at an "Our Bodies, Our Sports" rally to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX at Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C., on June 23, 2022.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard

Ranging beyond the realm of Republican officeholders, there are other women with conservative credentials or points of view who have shown interest in the nation's highest office as well. This past week when a congressional panel had a hearing on how the Biden administration was "weaponizing" federal agencies against citizens, one witness getting a lot of attention was Tulsi Gabbard.

Gabbard is a former major in the National Guard who fought in Iraq, served four terms as a member of Congress from Hawaii and ran for president as a Democrat in 2020.

Gabbard left the Democratic Party in 2022, denouncing it as "an elitist cabal of warmongers" and has since appeared often on Fox News and elsewhere as a critic of Democrats and "Big Tech" social media.

She has not declared any new party allegiance, but has remained in the public eye as the host of a podcast and YouTube channel and as a speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference. And last fall, Newsweek reported that at least one British bookmaker was giving Gabbard better odds of being on the next Republican ticket than former Vice President Mike Pence.

Widening the lens to include the VP nomination, more GOP women enter the frame

Listings of prospective running mates often begin with people who have fallen short in running for president. That would be expected in 2024, as well, but in addition to a Haley or a Noem, Republicans could look to other woman governors, senators or prominent members of Congress — not to mention those with national reputations for past political exploits.

There is a clear reason for the scramble to define women as presidential as never before. It is embodied in the arrival of Vice President Harris, the first woman to occupy the job famously described as a "heartbeat away from the presidency."

Many political observers have long believed the first woman president would achieve that office after first being vice president. And now that could happen at any time, a possibility Harris personifies wherever she goes.

Like Hillary Clinton's climb to the presidential nomination in 2016, Harris' ascent to her current position represents a long step toward making women's full political equality a reality in both parties.

This trend was on full view in the 2020 cycle, when Harris was one of six women participating in the Democrats' early rounds of presidential debates in the summer of 2019. All this raises the ante for Republicans, especially considering that women now cast more than half the total vote for president.

For a century after the first woman declared herself a protest candidate for the White House in 1872 (before women's right to vote was added to the Constitution in 1920), when women ran for the White House it was more to make a point than to win an office. The first woman to receive votes in primaries andat the national convention was Margaret Chase Smith, a senator from Maine, in 1964.

But in recent decades, women have been running not just to make a showing but to get on the ticket. Surely Elizabeth Dole, a senator from North Carolina, thought that was possible when she ran in the 1999-2000 cycle. Carly Fiorina, a California business executive, ran for president in 2016 but late in the primaries agreed to be Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's prospective running mate instead.

Two women have indeed been nominated for vice president by the major parties, Democrat Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Republican Sarah Palin in 2008. Both managed to shake up the party's convention, the media coverage and even the contest itself for a period of weeks.

But ultimately neither could alter the underlying dynamics of those races or supply what may have been lacking in their parties' presidential nominees. Supporters who thought these gender breakthroughs might galvanize women voters across party lines were disappointed.

But Harris was elected, and that carried the conversation about women on the ticket to its next logical step. The culture has continued to change. Gender balance has gone from a novelty to a natural assumption. The pressure will be on the party that tries to resist that nature in 2024 and beyond.

Stand by Trump or separate from him?

A key complicating factor for women contemplating 2024 is the role of Trump. While Haley is his first official challenger, no one expects her to be the last. His failure to "clear the field" as a two-time nominee and former president has been widely noted.

DeSantis is regarded as the likeliest challenger to match Trump in polls and fundraising. But New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu has been "testing the waters" as well, and there could be others such as Maryland's popular former Gov. Larry Hogan, who just retired due to term limits.

Pence, too, for his part, has been showing up in the early primary states, but not showing well in the polls. Trump's true believers see him as disloyal, yet Pence seems part of the Trump legacy to those who want the party to move on.

All of which reminds us that Trump remains by far the best-known and feared figure in the GOP.

That may be why Haley, Noem and others have tried not to criticize Trump or disrespect him even as they contemplate running against him.

Would opposing him in the primaries automatically kill any chance of being his running mate? Taking on Biden in the early Democratic debates did not kill Harris' chances. On the other hand, Harris did drop out before the primaries actually began and endorsed Biden early in March.

The ideal space for a woman candidate, or any prospective candidate in 2024, might be just outside of Trump's immediate orbit — somehow uninvolved in his controversies and beyond his wrath. That would allow a prospective running mate to pursue free agency for a time, holding open the prospect of joining Trump at some point or of joining someone else's ticket.

There is an awkwardness in all this posturing, some of which may have been at work when Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave the official Republican response to Biden's State of the Union on Feb. 7. That speaking slot has often been seen as an audition for statewide politicians with national ambitions. Sanders used it to deliver a strong message of condemnation against the Biden administration and against Democrats in general, especially on social issues.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders delivers the Republican response to the State of the Union address by President Joe Biden on February 7, 2023 in Little Rock, Arkansas.
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Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders delivers the Republican response to the State of the Union address by President Biden on Feb, 7 in Little Rock, Ark.

She also included considerable personal information and referred to her role as the White House press secretary going to Iraq to visit troops with the president and first lady — all without ever without mentioning the name of the president she served. For this she was also criticized by many conservatives and Trump supporters.

Sanders has not broken with Trump. But she may be seeking a safe distance not unlike that sought by her father, Mike Huckabee, who once also served as Arkansas' governor. Huckabee ran for president in 2008 and again in 2016, and while he has supported Trumphe did not take a job in the Trump administration, pursuing his TBN talk show and speaking engagements.

Other recognizable political personalities among Republican women might also find themselves divided between gratitude for Trump's past help and a desire to be part of what Sanders called "a new generation of Republican leaders."

Some, such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, may be too closely associated with Trump already to have other options. But someone such as Elise Stefanik, the New York congresswoman who replaced Cheney as the House GOP's third-ranking leader, might have maneuvering room in either direction.

There also exists the possibility that a resurgent Trump might look beyond current officeholders for an outsider with no second thoughts as his running mate, someone with mediagenic appeal who is willing to embrace his "stolen election" obsession about 2020 with fervor to match his own.

Kari Lake, a former local TV anchor in Phoenix, has shown that kind of devotion to her insistence she was elected governor of Arizona in 2022 — a race she lost. Lake has been mentioned as a Senate candidate next year, but this weekend she will be visiting Iowa, the site of the first Republican caucuses a year from now.

And Palin is still politically active and still telling Alaskans she would be their elected member of Congress right now if it were not for a "weird" voting system voters adopted there by referendum the year before her defeat in 2022.

Trump enthusiastically endorsed and praised both women in their contests last year.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.