Nikki Haley
The last Reagan Republican presidential candidate? Sean Rayford/AP

Leading Conservatives Worry Their Ideas Will End With Nikki Haley

“Every time I hear her speak, I think she gives the perfect Republican speech for 2015,” one conservative said.

Nikki Haley’s admirers say they can draw a perfectly straight line from Ronald Reagan’s governing agenda — one of limited government at home and a robust American presence abroad — to the political worldview she articulates today.

They worry it’s part of the reason her presidential campaign is faltering so badly.

Leading conservatives say they are deeply concerned about the popularity and future of Reagan-style conservatism, citing Haley’s struggles against former President Donald Trump and his “America First” agenda of protectionist economics and aversion to international intervention. The former South Carolina governor — who polls indicate is headed for another defeat to Trump on Saturday in her home state’s primary — has failed to make much of a dent in the former president’s support despite repeatedly and forcefully embracing ideas, like fighting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or opposing trade tariffs, that were once central to the party’s ideology.

Trump’s policy platform has taken over the party to such a degree, some conservatives say, that they fear the party’s traditional platform is on the verge of de facto extinction at the presidential level — with Haley’s campaign representing the final, faint echo of a once-dominant force within the GOP.

“There’s a very good chance that Nikki Haley will be the last GOP candidate who sticks to a Reagan-style agenda, at least among those with a serious chance of winning the presidency,” said Eli Lehrer, president of R Street Institute, a Washington-based think tank that advocates for free-market principles.

“The party has changed, probably in ways that are irreversible as a result of Trump,” he added.

The shift in orthodoxy isn’t entirely new, these conservatives argue, saying it started when Trump originally won the GOP nomination in 2016 and progressed for the four years he was president. But the change might be accelerating as the former president romps to victories in the Republican presidential primary, spiking fears among longtime party leaders that their governing vision is being pushed to the margins of their party.

“I worry about it every day,” said Asa Hutchinson, who ran for the GOP nomination and is a former governor of Arkansas. “I’ve spent a year pushing back against it.”

Hutchinson, like some other Republicans interviewed by NOTUS, insisted Reagan-style conservatism is down but not out, arguing it is poised for a revival after Trump no longer leads the party. The popularity of the “America First” agenda is inextricably linked to his personal popularity and will fade in the hands of another candidate, they say.

Ronald Reagan
President Ronald Reagan’s ideas are now in decline in the GOP. Doug Mills/AP

But evidence of the decline in Reaganism within the GOP is abundant. Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill, in addition to flocking to Trump’s campaign, have balked at sending additional funds to Ukraine as it seeks to repel Russia’s invasion. Other former Republican presidential candidates, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, also passed over the traditional GOP platform in favor of a Trump-style agenda, with each having at least a fleeting moment of popularity in the primary.

And longtime conservative stalwarts have spoken openly about the perceived threat of the party’s new direction. Former Vice President Mike Pence warned in a September speech that voters had “come to a Republican time for choosing” between a “traditional conservative agenda” and, as he put it, “populism and decline.” (Pence dropped out of the presidential race less than two months later.)

Haley, like Pence, has also taken the Trump-inspired philosophy head on, arguing that it leads to bad outcomes and worse politics.

“It’s not ‘America First’ to withdraw from the world,” Haley said during a speech this week. “It’s not ‘America First’ to praise dictators who want to kill Americans. It’s not ‘America First’ to bankrupt Social Security by doing nothing to fix it. And in fact, it’s ‘America Last’ to keep losing one election after another to the socialist left. That’s what we get with Donald Trump.”

There’s little doubt that Haley shares Reagan’s governing philosophy, a worldview that nearly every significant Republican elected official has subscribed to to some degree for the last four decades. On the campaign trail, she has repeatedly advocated for more funding for Ukraine, demanded deep government spending cuts and touted her opposition to proposed tariffs, including from China.

Her speeches can sound downright nostalgic to some conservatives — which, they hasten to add, is evidence of the problem.

“Every time I hear her speak, I think she gives the perfect Republican speech for 2015, or what we thought was the perfect speech then,” said Charlie Sykes, a former conservative radio host in Wisconsin turned vocal Trump critic.

“That worldview just doesn’t resonate anymore,” he added. “Republicans are looking for something else.”

Sykes called the transformation in his party “soul-crushing.” Republicans, he said, were turning their back on not just Reagan but a nearly century-old foreign policy that took root after World War II, when the party backed Dwight D. Eisenhower as its nominee in 1952.

“It’s clear that the Republican Party is in the process of rejecting that tradition, most clearly at the presidential level,” he said.

Part of the shift, Republicans say, is a result of an influx of blue-collar voters into the GOP, many of whom take a much more skeptical view of free-trade and open-market policies (those they think have led to the country’s de-industrialization) than their white-collar brethren. Trump has assiduously courted this voting bloc since entering politics, vowing to protect entitlement programs like Social Security and alter the nature of the country’s trade with China.

More than a shift in coalitions, however, one GOP pollster says the party’s preexisting base of voters over the last several decades has been radicalized by the clear-and-present danger it sees from liberal cultural values, which those voters think threatens their individual well-being and America as a whole.

Veteran GOP pollster Wes Anderson said against that backdrop, Haley’s traditional GOP message feels correct but wholly insufficient — comparing her to a financial planner dispensing investment advice to men and women hunkered down while a deadly hurricane rages outside.

“If you have a time machine, and you plop her down in 1989, it’s a great speech, and it’s something the vast majority of the Republican Party believes in,” Anderson said. “Today, they hear that and say, ‘Oh crap, you don’t get it, you’re blind.’”

The pollster added that in the focus groups of GOP voters he conducts, it’s clear that Republican sentiment, rather than showing signs of snapping back into place, is accelerating further away from the Reagan worldview. If the next wave of GOP presidential candidates wants to win over the base, Anderson said, they should focus less on policies like free-trade agreements than proposing something once regarded as a liberal policy view, like using the full force of government to break up big tech companies.

Republican voters “want to break up Amazon. They want to break up Meta. And they want to break up Google,” he said.

Other leading conservatives, of course, disagree. The GOP’s growing adherence to the “American First” agenda is rooted in its personal affinity for Trump, they argue, and will fade the moment he no longer dominates party life.

“At some point, Trump will no longer be the nominee, and it remains a very wide open question how these policy debates and ideological debates play out in a world where no one has Trump’s connection and charisma to the base that drives the conversation,” said Avik Roy, president of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, which advocates for free-market principles.

To Roy, the failure of both DeSantis and Ramaswamy to find sustained success in the GOP primary was proof that non-Trump Republicans who embrace the former president’s agenda will struggle to find traction with most GOP voters. And while he concedes that some of the party’s views have changed in recent years, external events — like a financial shock tied to the country’s burgeoning debt — could re-center traditional conservative views within the party.

It could even help Haley vault to a more advantageous position in a hypothetical future presidential run, including in 2028.

“She could say, ‘Hey I was talking about the debt before it was cool, and now look where we are, so you need me to lead you to solutions,’” Roy said.

Sykes, the former conservative radio host, said determining how much was based on Trump, and how much was based on a deep-seated change in GOP orthodoxy, was hard to tell.

“People are going to be studying this for a very, very long time,” he said.

Alex Roarty is a reporter at NOTUS.