HomeLearning CenterAs Nikki Haley Has Climbed in the Polls, She Confronts Sexist Attacks

As Nikki Haley Has Climbed in the Polls, She Confronts Sexist Attacks

Originally published by Dylan Wells and Maeve Reston for the Washington Post

Linda Portel has watched a barrage of presidential campaign commercials this year from her living room in Urbandale, Iowa. Many have faded from her memory. But one stuck with her: an ad attacking Nikki Haley that Portel viewed as sexist.

The 30-second spot tying Haley to Hillary Clinton is just the kind of broadside that Portel, who is undecided, and other Haley admirers worry could derail the former U.N. ambassador’s long-shot bid to defeat Donald Trump for the Republican nomination. A former Trump supporter, Portel is concerned that the misleading portrayal of Haley as an acolyte of a former female candidate reviled by conservatives could hurt her in the crucial weeks ahead.

“Unfortunately, people don’t read between the lines,” Portel, 76, said in an interview.

As Haley has risen in the polls in recent months amid a shrinking GOP field, she has faced escalating attacks from rivals and their allies that critics regard as sexist and meant to single out her gender in a Republican Party that has been slower than Democrats to elevate women into some of the most prominent elective offices. The party remains dominated by Trump, who routinely attacks women with sexist and demeaning language and was this year found liable for sexual abuse.

Interviews with more than 40 Republican voters, activists and officials in key early states show a party that has never nominated a woman for president navigating conflicting opinions, including some signs of voter unease at the prospect, even as Haley has grown her support and seeks to cement her position as Trump’s top GOP challenger. Some Haley backers say they are increasingly concerned about this trend — and what they see as efforts from rival candidates and their allies to exploit it.

Haley supporter Bart Weller, who attended her town hall in Ankeny, Iowa, summed up some of the challenges that Haley faces when he recalled one of his brothers bluntly telling him, “I don’t want to vote for a woman to be president.”

Male rivals have gone after Haley in ways that some GOP critics say is either flatly sexist or carries sexist undertones.Trump haslabeled Haley “birdbrain.” Hetold conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt earlier this year that she was “overly ambitious” and “just couldn’t stay in her seat.” (Haley has said being called ambitious used to bother her, but now she considers it being a “badass”).

Biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy has suggested Haley should switch over to “the party of identity politics” and claimed her “gender-card shtick is pathetic & straight out of the Kamala Harris / Hillary Clinton playbook.”

In addition to the ad Portel watched from the pro-Ron DeSantis group Fight Right — which highlights Haley saying Clinton in part inspired her to run for office, selectively omitting her criticism of Clinton — another group supporting the Florida governor has released misleading videos splicing together similar words uttered by Haley, Clinton and Michelle Obama. Portel referenced the ad she saw in a conversation with door-knockers from a pro-Haley group, Americans for Prosperity.

Haley and her allies have dismissed attacks from her male rivals, and she has deliveredone-liners at debates that nod to her position as the only woman onstage. “I love all the attention, fellas,” she said during the fourth debate in Alabama, while under both policy and personal criticism from the other candidates.

Others have issued more direct criticism.Barbara Comstock, a former Republican congresswoman who is on the board of both VIEW PAC and Winning for Women — two groups devoted to electing more conservative women to higher office —roundly denounced the criticisms from Trump and others.

“Imagine him criticizing Vivek Ramaswamy for being overly ambitious, right? That’s something that is only applied to women,” said Comstock, who is supporting former New Jersey governor Chris Christie in the 2024 race. She noted that Trump’s “birdbrain” nickname has been largely ignored by Haley: “That’s because she’s in a party where there’s a lot of misogyny, so it makes that much more difficult for her to take that on herself.”

“In the old Republican Party, there would have been a lot of men who would have stood up and said, ‘How dare you, this is outrageous,’” Comstock added. “But Trump’s unleashed everyone’s inner misogyny — so for a lot of these guys, they can openly be that way because Trump is.”

Spokespeople for the rival campaigns and their allied groups defended the ads and attacks, arguing they are pointing out how Haley’s policies and some of the positions she has taken are out of step with the base of the Republican Party and that her gender should not preclude such arguments.

Tricia McLaughlin, an adviser to Ramaswamy, said she found the “cries of sexism incredibly infantilizing,” and “having two X chromosomes doesn’t shield you from scrutiny.”

At the same time, many of Trump’s supporters largely shrug off his controversial comments about women and his efforts to demean his past female rivals.

“The women taking offense, they need a stronger backbone,” said Sandra, a recent retiree from Mason City, Iowa, who spoke on the condition that her full name not be used to protect her privacy. Though she disliked some of Trump’s tweets, she said in an interview at a local Walmart that the former president “makes me laugh.”

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