When GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump takes the stage at Thursday night’s debate in South Carolina, among his hosts will be the sitting governor—who in a marquee speech less than 48 hours earlier called him both loud and wrong.
Welcome to the Republican Party Civil War, 2016 edition, now playing on TV everywhere.
“During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voice,” Gov. Nikki Haley said during her widely praised response to President Obama’s final State of the Union address.
That line, in fact, as well as her later criticism of the “loudest voice in the room,” mirrored Obama’s barely-veiled critique of Trump’s immigration views in his own speech—offering a somewhat ironic area of agreement.
“Trump’s created bipartisanship,” joked Ari Fleischer, a top aide to former President George W. Bush and a member of the 2013 Republican National Committee group that advocated for more and better minority outreach. “He’ll probably take credit for that, too.”
Haley’s comments about Trump—she confirmed in TV interviews Wednesday that she was referring to him—highlight yet again the stark division between the longtime leadership of the “establishment” wing of the Republican Party and its populist base.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush praised Haley’s speech as “unifying and purposeful” on a Fox News appearance. Conservative firebrand Ann Coulter, meanwhile, suggested on Twitter that Trump should, once elected: “deport Nikki Haley.” (A child of Indian immigrants, she is a South Carolina native.)
Stuck in the middle is the RNC, which for months has cast itself as completely impartial regarding the presidential primary season, based partly on a fear that Trump would run as a third-party candidate using his own money if he believed the party was treating him unfairly. RNC chairman Reince Priebus issued a statement hitting Obama’s speech, but ignoring Haley’s response entirely. A party spokeswoman said Wednesday that the RNC had no role in choosing Haley. That has traditionally been done by the party’s leaders in Congress—in the case of Haley, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan.
In any event, many party leaders have believed for more than a decade that the GOP must attract younger, more ethnically diverse voters or continue to lose national elections. After the 2012 presidential election loss, in which Republican Mitt Romney received just 27 percent of the Latino vote, the party assembled a panel to understand what went wrong. The “Growth and Opportunity Project” that Fleischer served on recommended that GOP leaders in Congress support an immigration overhaul to broaden its support beyond the older, whiter base it has relied upon in recent decades.
That overhaul, while it cleared the Senate with limited GOP support, was blocked in the Republican-led House because of widespread opposition by the party’s base—which has now found new voice in the remarks of Trump and, to a lesser degree, Sen. Ted Cruz.
Cruz, whose comments about immigrants have been more tempered than Trump’s (Cruz’s father was born in Cuba and he himself was born in Canada to an American-born mother), has been campaigning on the idea that major outreach to minority groups is less important than energizing hard-core conservatives who have lost faith in the Republican “establishment.”
Trump, who has led the national and most state polls for months despite (or perhaps because of) his inflammatory language regarding illegal immigrants, was quick to hit back at Haley on Wednesday.
In TV interviews Trump called her “weak on illegal immigration” and said she liked him back when she was soliciting campaign contributions from him. He also dismissed speculation that her performance could lead to her consideration as a vice presidential running mate this summer.
“Well, considering I’m leading in the polls by a lot, I wouldn’t say she’s off to a good start,” Trump told CNN. “Whoever I pick is also going to be very strong on illegal immigration.”
Fleischer said that while this and other battles will continue on the campaign trail and in Thursday’s debate, he would not necessarily read that much into it. “I think it’s more of each candidate trying to win, than it is establishment versus the base,” he said.