Nikki Haley gets endorsement from Koch network as she pushes to take on Donald Trump

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley arrives on stage at her first campaign event on February 15, 2023 in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Americans for Prosperity, the political arm of the powerful Koch network, formally endorsed Nikki Haley's presidential campaign on Tuesday, promising to commit its nationwide coalition of activists — and virtually unlimited funds — to helping Haley defeat former President Donald Trump in the GOP primary contest.

"AFP Action is proud to throw our full support behind Nikki Haley, who offers America the opportunity to turn the page on the current political era, to win the Republican primary and defeat Joe Biden next November," AFP president and CEO Emily Seidel wrote in a memo announcing the group's decision.

"She has what it takes to lead a policy agenda to take on our nation’s biggest challenges and help ensure our country’s best days are ahead. With the grassroots and data capability we bring to bear in this race, no other organization is better equipped to help her do it."

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The endorsement may help Haley address one of her biggest strategic liabilities.

Despite seizing some polling momentum in recent months, especially in early primary states, the former United Nations ambassador's campaign has been lacking significant resources on the ground to ensure her supporters turn out to vote. But now, she inherits the organizational heft of what may be the most powerful conservative grassroots organization in the nation. The Koch network, previously referred to as the Koch Brothers, has been building a network of paid conservative activists and volunteers in key states for several years.

Through last summer and the fall alone, Americans for Prosperity activists communicated with 6 million primary voters, either in person at their doors or on the phone, Seidel said.

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The endorsement marks a particularly painful blow to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who had championed conservative priorities in Florida, but struggled to emerge as the clear Trump alternative in the 2024 GOP primary contest. It's unclear, however, whether the endorsement can help weaken Trump's grip on the Republican presidential nomination given his commanding lead over DeSantis and Haley in virtually every poll.

Back in the spring, the Koch network began running ads across Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — the first three states on the GOP’s presidential primary calendar — focusing on questions about Trump’s electability in next fall’s general election against Biden. And still, Trump remains the overwhelming front-runner in the race.

Seidel said Tuesday that Americans for Prosperity would immediately begin refocusing its efforts on boosting Haley’s primary and general election campaigns with strategic advertising investments, mailers and voter contacts through the group’s network of thousands of conservative activists, which has spent recent months collecting information from Republican primary voters to determine the most effective arguments against Trump.

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At the same time, Seidel said that her organization would focus on persuading reliable general election voters, who typically don’t vote in primaries, to show up for Haley in this year’s fast-approaching nomination contests.

Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung dismissed Americans for Prosperity as "the political arm of the China-first, America-last movement."

"No amount of shady money from George Soros, Democrats and Never-Trump RINOs in partnership with endless-war swamp creatures in Washington will stop the MAGA movement or President Trump from being the Republican nominee and defeating Crooked Joe Biden," Cheung wrote in a statement responding to the Haley endorsement.

The feud between Trump and the Koch network has been years in the making.

The Kochs, long demonized by Democrats for having outsize influence in Washington, refused to support Trump's reelection in 2020. The group’s leaders argued that his populist policies, especially on trade, didn’t adhere to traditional conservative values, while decrying his divisive leadership style.

News of the endorsement Tuesday quickly rippled across the political world.

Speaking in Washington, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney predicted it would be a "huge boost" to Haley’s campaign.

Romney, a vocal Trump critic, said Haley has proved naysayers wrong before "and she’s doing it again." He added: "I think it’s a huge boost for her campaign and may create the kind of momentum she needs."

The DeSantis camp was not pleased.

In a statement, DeSantis spokesperson Andrew Romeo likened the Koch endorsement to a contribution to the Trump campaign.

"Congratulations to Donald Trump on securing the Koch endorsement. Like clockwork, the pro-open borders, pro-jail break bill establishment is lining up behind a moderate who has no mathematical pathway of defeating the former president," Romeo wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. "Every dollar spent on Nikki Haley’s candidacy should be reported as an in-kind to the Trump campaign. No one has a stronger record of beating the establishment than Ron DeSantis, and this time will be no different."

Yet the Koch network is convinced that Haley is better positioned to defeat Trump — and Biden — than DeSantis.

In a polling memo, senior adviser Michael Palmer highlighted Haley's "sustained momentum in recent months," while noting that many primary voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are only just beginning to pay close attention to the contest.

"Gov. DeSantis has been a tremendous leader of the state of Florida," Seidel said in a Tuesday conference call. "But all of the evidence we’ve already shared on this call point to the fact that Nikki Haley is the strongest candidate in this race and that’s why we decided to support her."

Meanwhile, Haley said she was honored to have the support of Americans for Prosperity, "including its millions of grassroots members all across the country."

"AFP Action’s members know that there is too much at stake in this election to sit on the sidelines," she said in a statement. "This is a choice between freedom and socialism, individual liberty and big government, fiscal responsibility and spiraling debt. We have a country to save, and I’m grateful to have AFP Action by our side."

Associated Press writers Meg Kinnard in Columbia, S.C., and Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed to this report.