Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s message to a standing-room-only crowd at Exeter Town Hall Thursday Night was simple: If Republicans want to start winning again, they need to “focus on new generational leadership.”
“And the best way to do that,” Haley added, “is to put a badass woman in the White House.”
The crowd loved it. And Haley’s campaign team must have been pretty happy, too.
Before the event, some NHGOP insiders wondered if it was smart for the campaign to launch in a relatively large venue in a blue town like Exeter. But the building was packed, as curious Republicans from as far away as Maine turned out to hear Haley speak.
Ryan Terrell, the new state party vice chair, was delighted to see it. “In the middle of Exeter to have this kind of turnout, to have standing room only, I think it’s impressive. I hope it’s a sign of a successful Republican campaign season.”
It’s even more impressive given Haley has no paid full-time staff on the ground in the state to organize turnout. And reports from the New Hampshire Institute of Politics are that her Friday night town hall is already a sellout.
“She’s a very impressive Republican woman and I think she’s going to find a lot of fans here,” Terrell said.
And having retired Gen. Don Bolduc, who won last year’s U.S. Senate GOP primary, on hand to introduce her likely helped, too. While he lost to incumbent Sen. Maggie Hassan, Bolduc remains a popular figure in the GOP base.
“The fact that she started her campaign here in New Hampshire in a town hall is indicative of how she feels about the American people and New Hampshire,” Bolduc said. “This is quintessential New Hampshire — ‘coffee-breath’ close with your elected officials and the people who want to serve you.”
“If you supported me — and even if you didn’t— I’m asking you to support her,” Bolduc added.
Haley spoke for about 40 minutes, telling her life story and tying her experiences as South Carolina governor and U.N. Ambassador to the challenges facing the nation today. She also reminded the crowd several times that she’s not a lawyer, she’s an accountant.
“I’ve never been in D.C., but I think they need a really good accountant,” Haley said.
Her overall theme: She’s a strong, battle-tested woman who’s ready for a fight.
Haley had tough talk for President Biden, in particular his foreign policy (“What foreign policy,” a member of the audience shouted, inspiring laughter. “Exactly right,” Haley responded). She decried what she described as weakness from the administration.
“You’ve got Biden falling all over himself to get back into an Iran deal where they say ‘Death to America.’ You’ve got North Korea shooting more missiles this year than they ever have before. And you’ve got China on the march — China is eating our lunch right now.
“The idea that Americans would look to the sky and see a Chinese spy balloon flying over us is nothing more than a massive national embarrassment,” Haley said.
Haley had plenty of tough talk for China, too, arguing the U.S. needs to get real about the threat they pose.
“Biden was very quick to talk about Covid and he was really quick to say ‘put your mask on.’ But when you turned it over, the mask was made in China. Biden was very quick to say ‘make sure you take your Covid test. If you turn it over, it was made in China.
“And guess what: if we ever have a national emergency, most of our medications will go through China. Are we crazy?”
Haley called for a ban on U.S. land sales to Chinese government entities and either on-shoring manufacturing or “friend-shoring” to reliable allies like Australia, India and Japan.
But perhaps most politically interesting was Haley’s tough talk for Republican primary voters: If you want to win, we’ve got to make a change.
“I will say this to our Republicans in the room: we’ve lost the last seven out of eight popular votes for president. That means Republicans are doing something wrong,” Haley said. “We should not be okay with that. We should want to win the majority of Americans because our solutions are the right ones.
“But if we’re going to do it, we have to stop leaning on the status quo of the past. We’ve got to stop talking about old issues and we need to start looking forward.”
Among her ideas for this forward-looking focus: term limits, and “a mental competency test for any [politician] over the age of 75. Many Republicans saw that as a not-so-veiled reference to former President Donald Trump. As was this:
“Our road forward is no more complaining about it. We’re going to do something about it. We’ve done enough complaining. This country’s been through a lot. Aren’t you tired?”
There were many heads in the crowd nodding in response.
One area where Haley’s event fell flat was in the “town hall” aspect. Only three people asked questions, and one of them was former NHGOP vice chair Matt Mayberry, who was on hand as a volunteer helping with the event. (A fourth person took the mic to pledge his support to Haley.) The questions were about Iran, the Second Amendment and Ukraine.
The latter generated the most interest, with Haley endorsing U.S. support for Ukraine as part of the national interest to defend freedom. It’s a divisive issue inside the party, and several members of the crowd told NHJournal afterward they disagreed with her position.
And several issues were notable by their absence. Very free direct references to former President Trump or the rest of the likely GOP field, and not a single mention of abortion.
Still, the reviews were overwhelmingly positive.
“I was impressed, she was able to speak without a teleprompter, she spoke off the cuff. — I completely disagree with her on Ukraine,” said Mike McLaughlin, who said he “bounces between Texas and New Hampshire.” And he added, “I liked how she played the accountant card.”
Several attendees mentioned the fact Haley spoke without notes and yet never seemed to stumble.
“She gave a terrific speech, she showed power,” said Bruce Allen of East Kingston. I give the speech a nine [on a one to ten scale]. The question is whether she can pull a team together — that means raising money and getting an organization. The speech was great. Now can she make it happen?”
“I didn’t agree with everything she said but it was a good speech,” said Charlotte Wallace of Durham. “What impresses me most is her courage, her energy and her grace.”
Carol Dunkerly of Portland, Maine wanted a bit more on some key issues.
“I wish she had addressed the abortion issue, and I wish she had talked a little more about gun control, but I think she’s charming, articulate and personable,” Dunkerly said.
“Common sense. She reminds me of Reagan,” added her husband, Al. “And I think the whole thing about generational change is right on. We’re tired of the old folks.”
“And we are the old folks,” Carol chimed in.