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Koch network endorsement is latest sign of Haley’s rise, but it’s far from a game ender

<i>Lily Smith/The Des Moines Register/USA Today Network</i><br/>
Lily Smith/The Des Moines Register/USA Today Network

By Daniel Strauss, Fredreka Schouten and Jeff Zeleny, CNN

(CNN) — An endorsement by a powerful conservative political advocacy group of former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has created an opening for the 2024 candidate to elevate her position as she tries to become the leading Trump alternative in the Republican presidential primary.

The endorsement, which Americans for Prosperity Action unveiled on Tuesday, had a ripple effect, creating fresh buzz around her campaign among donors and touching Haley’s chief rivals – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump, whose respective campaigns and super PACs churned out statements downplaying the support and throwing potshots at each other. In a fundraising solicitation, the Trump campaign alluded to the Koch network as “a corrupt network of globalist RINO donors” and “backstabbers.”

The endorsement from the network associated with billionaire Charles Koch is not a game ender in the primary. Endorsements and the monetary support that sometimes comes with them don’t necessarily translate to raw voter support in any election. And Trump remains the far and away front-runner in early state and national polling of the Republican primary. But for Haley, a candidate who started out in the primary in the shadow of both DeSantis and Trump, the endorsement was the latest sign of growing support for her presidential campaign.

At a campaign stop Tuesday night in Derry, New Hampshire, Haley did not explicitly mention the endorsement, but she urged Republicans to turn the page from Trump if the party hopes to start winning national elections again.

“We should want to win the majority of Americans,” Haley said, “but the only way we’re going to do that is if we leave the negativity and the baggage behind and we go towards a new generational leader.”

Haley mentioned Trump only in the closing moments of her remarks, but when she said, “chaos follows him everywhere he goes,” she drew laughter and booming applause from the audience inside the crowded Derry Opera House.

Cam Savage, a veteran Republican strategist, cautioned about the overall impact of the AFP Action endorsement alone but also argued that it is a thread in the fabric of Republicans coalescing around a candidate who isn’t Trump.

“I think it’s part of the bigger maneuvering that has to happen if somebody’s going to have a chance and that is a consolidation behind her,” Savage said. “And I would just say AFP – I wouldn’t really look at it as an endorsement. I would look at it as the next step in terms of a coalescing behind her candidacy.”

AFP Action is likely to provide organizational help to Haley in places like Iowa, where a super PAC affiliated with DeSantis already has spent months building a ground operation to support his bid.

The Koch network plans to deploy its field team to knock on doors, make phone calls and send direct mailers in support of her candidacy. In a memo released Tuesday, officials with AFP Action said they already have contacted millions as they have worked to expand the pool of people they hope will participate in the Republican presidential primary as they strive to bypass Trump.

But their strategy extends beyond the states first on the nominating calendar. The deep-pocketed group also plans to engage with voters in South Carolina – the fourth state on the GOP nominating calendar and Haley’s home state – along with the raft of Super Tuesday states that vote on March 5, according to an AFP Action official.

The AFP endorsement triggered a flurry of movement in Republican donor circles.

In an announcement shared first with CNN, North Carolina retail magnate Art Pope on Tuesday endorsed Haley – becoming the latest wealthy GOP donor to publicly support her presidential bid.

Pope, who previously backed the campaign of former Vice President Mike Pence, has a long association with the Koch network and said he had encouraged officials at Americans for Prosperity Action to back her ahead of Tuesday’s announcement.

Pope said he closely examined the economic policies of Haley and DeSantis, before concluding that she was “more qualified and more aligned with me on the issues.”

He called Haley a “traditional limited government conservative” and said her “practical experience” as a CPA – who had to navigate government regulations and the challenge of meeting payroll while working in her family’s business – made her uniquely qualified to serve as president.

He described DeSantis’ economic policies as “too populist.”

Eric Levine, a New York lawyer and Republican fundraiser who is co-hosting a fundraising event for Haley on Monday, said the Koch endorsement has generated even more buzz.

“I’ve been getting a lot of emails and texts from people who are coming to the event and others. They are all very excited at the fact that the Koch folks have jumped on the bandwagon,” he told CNN on Tuesday afternoon.

“I just think it reflects that Nikki has the wind at her back,” Levine added. “The aura of Trump’s invincibility has evaporated.”

Levine said he has personally raised more than $100,000 in a little over a week for the Monday fundraiser, slated to be held in midtown Manhattan – a sign, he said, of genuine enthusiasm.

The recent movement among donors and the AFP endorsement was a blow to DeSantis. Within AFP circles over the last two months, Haley and DeSantis were seen as the only realistic candidates the group would support that could win in this primary, according to a Republican strategist with knowledge of the group’s inner workings.

“It was clear that [DeSantis] was a factor but the decision was made at this point to go in a different direction,” the Republican said.

This story has been updated with additional developments.

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