Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s answer about the cause of the Civil War during an event in New Hampshire has sparked blowback just as she’s looking to pull off an upset in the Granite State primary next month.
The voter who asked the question, which came during a town hall Wednesday, called Haley out after she failed to mention slavery in her response.
Haley has sought to clarify her remarks since, saying Thursday that “of course the Civil War was about slavery” and arguing that the voter who asked the question was a “Democrat plant.”
But the moment has led to criticism from across the political spectrum, including from top GOP rivals. And while Republican strategists are doubtful the blunder will be a decisive factor for her campaign, they acknowledge it’s a distraction that doesn’t help.
“What it does is it’s an unnecessary fumble for her at a time when she doesn’t need something like this,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean.
Democrats were quick to seize on her comments, with President Biden sharing a clip of the exchange on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, saying, “It was about slavery.”
Leading voices of color have also rebuked Haley’s comments.
Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison said in a statement that he is “disgusted” but “not surprised,” calling her comments a “slap in the face to Black voters.”
“This isn’t hard: condemning slavery is the baseline for anyone who wants to be President of the United States, but Nikki Haley and the rest of the MAGA GOP are choking on their words trying to rewrite history,” Harrison said.
But it wasn’t only Democrats who criticized the former South Carolina governor. Republicans — including primary rivals such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and allies of former President Trump — also hit her for the comments.
Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), who has endorsed Trump for the GOP nomination, slammed Haley on X.
“1. Psst Nikki… the answer is slavery PERIOD,” he posted. “2. This really doesn’t matter because Trump is going to be the nominee. Trump 2024!”
DeSantis said the moment demonstrated that Haley was “not a candidate that’s ready for prime time,” calling her response to the question an “incomprehensible word salad.” And a super PAC supporting Trump blasted out a statement that included headlines about the blowback.
Haley drew further criticism Thursday on her efforts to clean up the comments. While she said “of course” the Civil War was about slavery, she also accused the person asking the question of being a “Democrat plant.”
That remark drew a swift rebuke from operatives on both sides of the aisle.
“McCain knew he’d get an ‘Obama is a Muslim’ or ‘Obama is an Arab’ question,” tweeted Republican strategist Liz Mair. “And he knew how to handle it.”
The controversy comes at an awkward time for Haley, who has been on the rise for weeks in GOP polling, especially in the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire. She reached 30 percent in one poll for the Granite State from earlier this month and only trailed Trump by 4 points in another.
She has also regularly turned in strong debate performances and avoided any notable mistakes on the campaign trail until now.
Bonjean said Haley was “definitely caught off guard” by the question Wednesday and seemed to somewhat acknowledge that in the moment. He argued Haley made the right comments in her clarification from Thursday morning, but noted that she should have fixed it sooner.
He added that this type of mistake can become amplified during the holidays when not much else is going on.
“When you’re running for the highest office of the land, you open yourself up to all kinds of questions,” Bonjean said. “And you have to be very nimble, and she usually is.”
Republican strategist Rina Shah said she believes Haley’s hesitation to mention slavery in her original answer came because she was “in her own head” and worried about how her answer may alienate the far-right faction of the party she needs to appeal to. She added that Haley may also have been thinking of the voters who like actions that DeSantis has taken on African American studies and how slavery is taught in Florida.
“She is backpedaling because she realizes what a misstep that was,” Shah said.
But Shah also argued that while it was a “serious mistake,” it likely wouldn’t tip the scales in the primary.
The moment comes as Republicans have sought to broaden their coalition to include more voters of color, especially Black voters. Though Haley, who is Indian American, has sought to avoid focusing on identity politics, she is seen as part of a new generation of younger, more diverse GOP candidates who the party hopes can reach a wider swath of the electorate.
For Democrats, the moment underscores the challenges the GOP still faces in reaching Black voters.
“Black folks may be pro-value and trending to be anti-institution, but although they may not be over the hill embracing the Democratic Party, people are smart enough to know who’s on their side, and that traditionally and in modern history has been [the] Democratic Party,” said Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright. “They also know who’s against their core values and what they need, and that continues to trend to be the Republican Party.”
Haley joins a growing list of Republican candidates who have stumbled in their messaging on issues regarding race.
DeSantis this year faced outrage after approving a school curriculum that requires teachers to instruct students that slavery was beneficial, allowing slaves to develop skills that “in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
Seawright said these actions, including Haley’s comments, are attempts to whitewash history by the modern Republican Party.
“It’s also, I think, reflective of the current political environment on the Republican side in particular: Say anything to get to anywhere, and it doesn’t have to mean that it’s true,” he said. “I think you’ve seen that lead coming from the former president of their party, and now other candidates are dancing with that on the dance floor.”
The comments are not the first time Haley has waded into the issue. While running for South Carolina governor in 2010, she said during an interview that the Civil War was a conflict between “tradition” and “change” and argued that the Confederate flag was not “racist,” according to The Associated Press.
Haley shifted her stance on the flag in 2015 after a white gunman killed nine Black church members who were attending Bible study in Charleston, saying the flag had been “hijacked” and pushing to remove the flag from the state Capitol.
Seawright said Democrats have a chance to capitalize on Haley’s — and the GOP’s — struggles to take a solid stance on race and race relations.
“We have to do a better job of amplifying who we’re up against and what we’re up against, because they all want to do the same thing: Trumpism or extremism,” Seawright said. “That means acting like slavery was a job training program that somehow was another benefit to Black people and having no interest in telling the truth about the Civil War, which was about slavery.”
Meanwhile, Shah, the Republican strategist, said that the controversy likely wouldn’t have a major impact on GOP voters, who she argued wouldn’t dwell on the issue.
“They’re the people who are going, ‘Well, just let it go. It’s fine. You know, she answered it the way she answered it,’” Shah said.
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