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Top Republican donors like Nikki Haley, but wary of financial commitment 

Haley’s debate performance won rave reviews from GOP heavy hitters, but she’s not yet winning many new endorsements

Two weeks after her standout performance in the first Republican presidential debate, Nikki Haley is seeking to ride a wave of momentum as she gains traction in early primary states, sees a boost in national polling and pads her campaign warchest with a recent influx of donations.

The former U.N. ambassador, who had been struggling to catch on until she took the debate stage in Milwaukee last month, is now tied for second place in New Hampshire and has nearly quadrupled her support at the national level, according to several new public polls. She raised more than $1 million in less than 72 hours after the debate, according to her campaign. And political commentators are increasingly buzzing about her prospects as she prepares for the next debate later this month.

Still, some establishment GOP donors and traditional conservative activists who have long admired Haley remain wary that her recent surge will ultimately translate into a winning primary campaign, as former President Donald Trump, who skipped the debate, continues to hold a daunting, double-digit lead over every candidate in the Republican field.

“I like Nikki Haley a lot and I think she did well at the debate,” one Republican donor said in an interview with Jewish Insider on Tuesday, praising her comments on government spending as well as her positions on abortion and approach to foreign policy.

But in spite of her showing at the debate, where she came out swinging against Vivek Ramaswamy over his statements on Israel and other matters, the donor said he wasn’t ready to back Haley’s campaign just yet — notwithstanding his belief that the Republican ticket will be “stronger” if Trump isn’t the nominee. “It’s hard to make the large investment without a clear path,” the donor, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his privacy, explained. 

In national polls, Haley has drawn support, on average, in the mid-single digits, while recent polling in early primary states including New Hampshire and Iowa has put her in the low double digits — either tied with or trailing behind Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.

The donor expressed cautious optimism that Haley, 51, will find new “opportunities” to break out, even while acknowledging that his “personal preference” also leans in favor of Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), whose debate performance failed to result in a national uptick in voter support.

Eric Levine, a prominent GOP fundraiser and anti-Trump conservative who sits on the board of the Republican Jewish Coalition, went even further when he circulated a detailed memo on Monday announcing his endorsement of Scott over Haley, despite having contributed around $10,000 to her campaign.

“Tim Scott and Nikki Haley are both magnificent candidates,” Levine wrote in an email, praising the two South Carolina Republicans as Ronald Reagan acolytes with strong foreign policy records, including on Ukraine and Israel. 

He said he was choosing Scott instead of Haley, a pro-Israel stalwart who has frequently spoken at RJC events, because the 57-year-old senator is, according to his assessment, “the only truly viable Trump alternative” in the race.

“Tim’s likability is a critically important factor,” Levine, who did not respond to a request for comment from JI, elaborated in his memo. “He is the single most likely candidate who Republican primary voters can rally around. Even among voters who currently support other candidates as their first choice, the overwhelming majority view Tim favorably and pick him as their next choice.”

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN – AUGUST 23: Republican presidential candidates (L-R), Vivek Ramaswamy, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) participate in the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum on August 23, 2023 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Jon Tucker, a GOP donor and pro-Israel activist in Pittsburgh, said he had donated minimal amounts to help some candidates he likes qualify for the debate stage — including Haley and Scott, who are among his favorites in the primary. In contrast with Levine, however, he voiced skepticism that any candidate will be capable of catching up with Trump, who has continued to enjoy strong support even after a slew of recent indictments.

“Personally, I’ve always liked Nikki Haley, and I think that she would be able to win in November,” Tucker said in an interview with JI on Tuesday. “But any Republican that could win a general election can’t win a Republican primary, so it’s a real catch-22 for these candidates. I still get the feeling that they’re all fighting over table scraps and playing second fiddle to Trump.”

Haley’s post-debate bump, he suggested, wasn’t substantial enough to convince him that he should make a more sizable donation to her campaign. “Right now, it’s hard to get on anybody’s bandwagon,” Tucker said. “There’s no good in jumping behind a candidate before they have a seemingly clear path to a primary win.”

“Watching this now, it’s not worth a lot of mental effort, and it’s probably not worth a lot of financial effort either,” he concluded. “Amongst my social group there’s not a lot of interest in making large donations to presidential primary candidates.”

A top Republican donor in Chicago, who requested anonymity to protect his privacy, echoed that sentiment, even as he acknowledged that Haley’s debate performance had impressed him more than any candidate. “I thought she was awesome in that debate,” said the donor, who appreciated that Haley was the lone Republican onstage to go on the attack against Ramaswamy for suggesting that he would cut U.S. aid to Israel. “I’m more psyched than ever about her,” he told JI recently. “Of all of them, she’s my fave.”

Still, the donor said he wasn’t letting his own personal excitement skew his understanding of the polls. “It doesn’t mean it’s realistic that anyone can beat Trump, given his lead,” the donor, who suspects that Trump is on track to win the nomination, cautioned.

With that in mind, the donor said he would only be likely to open his checkbook for Haley if the primary becomes significantly closer in the coming months. At this point, he reasoned, “it just seems like you’re throwing money down the drain.”

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