Nikki Haley promotes her party, and her own brand, as she ponders her next move

Joni Ernst desperately wanted Nikki Haley to headline her event.

The incumbent Republican U.S. senator was looking for a featured speaker for her annual “Roast and Ride” fundraising event, which pairs a motorcycle parade with a barbecue feast and would, this year, double as her 2020 reelection campaign kickoff.

“We heard repeatedly from our grassroots that they were hoping (Haley) would be a future speaker,” said Brook Ramlet, Ernst’s spokesperson.

Haley, South Carolina’s popular former Republican governor and ex-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, wanted to say yes.

There was just one problem: Ernst is from Iowa, an early state in the presidential primary process. And Haley, whose higher political aspirations are the perennial topic of speculation, didn’t want to go anywhere that would stoke the flames of that speculation.

Ultimately, Haley agreed to attend the Roast n’ Ride, where she thrilled the crowd of more than 1,000 people with red meat one-liners. And sure enough, political journalists wrote stories speculating about what Haley was doing in Iowa.

This predicament underscores the challenges Haley’s team faces as they work to support and promote one of the most closely-watched conservatives in American politics today.

Haley is in high demand for speaking engagements, campaign events and political surrogacy, fielding “dozens” of requests each month to appear at any variety of events, conferences, forums and galas, according to a list of invitations The State recently reviewed.

According to Haley’s office, each invitation is evaluated based on whether Haley supports the person or organization making the request, and whether her schedule can accommodate it.

But Haley’s people also take pains to make sure their boss — who may very well run for president someday — makes the right choices about which events to attend and which to politely decline.

Each choice sends a potent message about Haley’s ideals and values and represents a different opportunity for Haley to share a different version of herself with the American people.

And political operatives who have worked for presidential candidates-in-waiting say these are the decisions Haley and her team must agonize over if she doesn’t want to foreclose any political opportunities in the future.

Keeping options open

Haley is not unique: she is one in a long line of politicians in both parties who have found themselves in between jobs and political campaigns, aiming to stay relevant until they declare their candidacy for president.

Democrat Hillary Clinton left her job as Secretary of State in February 2013. In the time between stepping down and launching her presidential campaign in April 2015, she wrote a book and went on a book tour, campaigned for Democratic candidates in the 2014 midterm elections and delivered paid speeches.

Joe Biden, the former vice president to Barack Obama who is now running for the top job in 2020, adopted a nearly identical model to Clinton’s when he left the White House in January 2017.

Haley and her confidants are adamant she is not imminently calculating a presidential bid in 2024.

But in order for Haley to have the option of running for president down the road, she has to start laying the groundwork now, said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty as each prepared to run for president in 2016 and 2012, respectively.

Pawlenty and Rubio received this specific piece of advice from U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, the former governor of Massachusetts who ran for the party’s presidential nomination in 2008 and lost to Obama in 2012, according to Conant.

“Mitt Romney told them, ‘If you’re not actively preparing to run for president, you’re not going to run for president.’ It’s not something that you just decide to do one day,” Conant said. “It’s a five-plus year endeavor that starts with doing just the sort of things that Nikki Haley is doing right now just to have the option to run down the road.”

Haley maintains her visibility on a number of fronts.

She delivers speeches arranged through her speaker’s bureau, which are among her most lucrative engagements. Some news reports say she can ask for as much a $200,000, but her office declined to confirm.

She is highly sought after by Jewish organizations for her strong support of Israel as U.N. ambassador, but her events aren’t always obvious fits with her issue portfolio — for instance, she is slated to address the Association for the Work Truck Industry’s annual conference in Indiana early next year.

In November, Haley will embark on a 13-stop tour to tout her forthcoming memoir, a chronicle of her time at the U.N. and a chance to frame her tenure in her own terms.

Clinton did something similar. Philippe Reines, a longtime Clinton adviser, described her decision to write a book as an opportunity to “put her best foot forward.” It even included one chapter dedicated to Clinton’s role in the Benghazi scandal, which Reines said was designed to “address as many of the standard right-wing attacks as possible” ahead of a presidential campaign.

Haley’s personal office largely handles requests for appearances from candidates, campaigns, political organizations and civic groups. These engagements are the ones that offer some of the most revealing glimpses into how Haley is actively keeping her options open.

Playing with the team

When Haley left President Donald Trump’s administration at the end of last year, she promised she would help the GOP in a presidential election cycle.

“Amb. Haley is committed to helping conservative causes and candidates,” Chaney Denton, Haley’s spokeswoman, said in an email. “She did that in 2019, and she looks forward to doing it even more in the 2020 election year.”

Campaigns have been eager to take her up on the offer.

She was recently the special guest at the Trump Victory Committee’s fall retreat, thwarting conspiracy theories she might be positioning herself to primary the polarizing incumbent president.

Haley has also committed to fundraising for the National Republican Congressional Committee to ensure the party is able to bolster “a diverse group of House candidates” to run and win in 2020, according to NRCC spokesman Chris Pack.

While political events have allowed Haley to be helpful to the party, they also are helping Haley build and maintain key relationships.

For instance, Haley joined the Republican Governors Association for a Houston, Texas fundraiser in April. Three months later, she was invited to address the largest dinner of the RGA’s annual conference in Aspen, Colorado.

“Her husband was with her, they stuck around, they mingled,” said RGA spokeswoman Amelia Chassé Alciva. “She didn’t fly in and fly out, she was there taking selfies and taking pictures and being social with our members, the attendees, the governors and their staffs.”

In August, Haley returned to Colorado, outside Denver, for a fundraiser for U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents in 2020.

That same day, she headlined a free event where interested Coloradans could watch Haley and Gardner do a question-and-answer session and then join in a “very casual meet-and-greet,” said Gardner campaign manager Casey Contres.

But Haley is not automatically stumping for every lawmaker in a tough reelection battle. Rather, she is aligning herself with those with whom she has something in common.

Ernst is another outspoken conservative woman in a party dominated by men; Haley and Gardner, in Contres’ words, “both have smiles on their faces and when they see a problem they say, ‘how can we fix it, who can we work with.’”

Haley’s participation with the RGA made sense, too, as she was on track to be vice president of the association had she not been confirmed as U.N. ambassador instead.

Likewise, as the wife of a veteran, Haley has spoken at events hosted by organizations sympathetic to servicemembers, like Helping a Hero, which gave her an award, and the Navy Seal Foundation.

And as an ally of the anti-abortion movement who signed legislation as governor that would restrict the practice in her state, Haley was the keynote speaker at the Susan B. Anthony List’s annual gala this summer.

Promoting a brand

In addition to her political travel, Haley has been granting requests to appear at smaller organizations around the country — organizations that likely wouldn’t have the resources to pay speaker’s bureau fees, meaning Haley agreed to more low-profile engagements for little compensation.

These engagements are opportunities for Haley to promote the Republican brand ahead of a presidential election year.

At a time when Republicans are casting Democrats as far-left radicals, Haley used a May speech at the Grand Rapids Economic Club in Michigan to describe working in her family’s small business, which defined her appreciation for the system of capitalism and the evils of socialism.

“Many people don’t realize this, and it needs to be said over and over again: capitalism is the greatest force for ending poverty and lifting up human beings in the history of the world,” she told a crowd of 1,800 business and community leaders at the club’s annual dinner. “We have an obligation to remind everyone that if you care about global poverty, if you care about childhood disease, literacy — even the environment — you should support capitalism.”

In late September, she addressed the annual dinner of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Hershey, where she warned burdensome environmental regulations were stifling innovation.

“Businesses don’t need onerous regulations to be good stewards of the environment,” Haley said, according to news reports. “We need to applaud (businesses) for what they do, not demonize them all as enemies of the Earth.”

Local chambers of commerce also present opportunities for Haley to promote her own agenda. Haley’s office confirmed she chooses these types of venues in large part because they tend to be most receptive to the message she wants to communicate related to the new “issue advocacy group” she founded earlier this year.

“Stand for America” is officially dedicated to “promoting public policies that strengthen America’s economy, culture, and national security.” It’s designed to be an educational and advocacy resource to citizens who want to be informed on related issues.

The group is also providing Haley with a megaphone to talk about the issues that are especially important to her, which include the dangers of socialism at home and abroad and international threats to “the American people’s security, interests and values.”

Throughout 2019, she has touched on Stand for America themes with student groups and conservative youth summits. Later this fall, these themes will likely creep into Haley’s remarks before the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, a small conservative think tank based in Minneapolis.

Playing to the base

Reines, Clinton’s longtime aide, said he was deeply skeptical Haley’s bridge-building brand of Republican politics will resonate in the age of Trump.

“Every standard way you would spend this time burnishing your record has basically been rendered moot,” he said. “She is not a fire-breathing Trump-molded politician, so what’s she going to do? Spend the next two years learning how to be rude and obnoxious?”

At the same time, Reines wondered whether Haley’s brand is resonating at all.

“She’s mostly gotten attention when she’s tweeted something critical (of Trump), or when she’s tamping down speculation about being the VP when nobody was asking,” he said, referring to Haley’s seemingly random response on Twitter to rumors that Trump was looking to put her on the 2020 ticket instead of Vice president Mike Pence.

But if Haley has made one thing clear over the past year, it’s that she isn’t playing to Democrats like Reines. Her base is the GOP, and right now it loves her.

At Joni Ernst’s Roast and Ride, Haley warned that if Trump doesn’t get reelected, America will become the land of the “Green New Deal,” “open borders,” “socialist health care” and “political correctness.”

The stories she told from her U.N. days made her sound like a folk hero, like when she compiled a list of which countries were “friends” of the United States to determine who would continue to receive foreign aid.

At the SBA List gala, she reinforced her bona fides as a pro-life conservative by casting anti-abortion Democrats as the villains of the movement.

“You’ve heard it all before: pro-life women are traitors to their gender,” Haley said. “Many on the left use the abortion debate to divide women and demand conformity. They do this in the name of feminism. But that is not real feminism. The idea that women must adhere to a particular set of values is one of the most anti-women ideas in today’s culture.”

“I can’t think of a place where she wouldn’t be welcome,” said RGA spokeswoman Alcivar, who is hoping Haley will get on the road for gubernatorial candidates in the months ahead. “I think she’d be effective anywhere in the country.”

Emma Dumain covers Congress and congressional leadership for McClatchy DC and the company’s newspapers around the country. She previously covered South Carolina politics out of McClatchy’s Washington bureau. From 2008-2015, Dumain was a congressional reporter for CQ Roll Call.