Nikki Haley gets stiff GOP blowback. Why are some in her own party upset?

Judging from the reaction to Gov. Nikki Haley's comments, it is clear that immigration is becoming a conservative litmus test.

Randall Hill/Reuters
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley speaks at the 2016 Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity in Columbia, S.C., Jan. 9, 2016.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s response to President Obama’s State of the Union address has generated lots of negative reaction within her own Republican Party. Why is that?

The short answer is that it was insufficiently hard-line on the issue of illegal immigration for some, as well as insufficiently angry. The larger question is whether that presages a breakup of some sort within the GOP.

“Trump should deport Nikki Haley,” tweeted conservative commentator Ann Coulter during the middle of Governor Haley’s speech Tuesday night.

Let’s back up and start with the details, shall we?

As the choice to counter the president’s appearance, Haley seemed something of an anti-Donald Trump from the get-go. She’s had lots of governing experience, for one. She gets along well with top party figures. She’s not belligerent. She played a key role in removing the Confederate battle flag from South Carolina's State House grounds.

And Haley’s speech Tuesday night was pretty much a direct Trump rebuke – even though she didn’t mention the billionaire by name.

As the Monitor’s Linda Feldmann noted Wednesday morning, Haley’s message shared quite a bit with Mr. Obama’s. On the broad issues of the state of America’s public discourse and the nation’s increasingly diverse identity, “they could have finished each other’s sentences,” according to Ms. Feldmann.

Haley seemed to allude to Mr. Trump when she said, “Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference.”

On Trump’s signature issue of opposition to illegal immigration, Haley said, “No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.” The United States should allow in “properly vetted legal immigrants, regardless of religion,” she added.

Ms. Coulter did not like these comments, tweeting that the first means “open borders” and that the second translates to “let in all the Muslims.” Nor was she alone among conservatives with her negative reaction.

“Nikki Haley’s speech would’ve been good except for the GOP self-loathing,” tweeted right-leaning commentator and former Ted Cruz staffer Amanda Carpenter.

As for the 2016 GOP presidential hopefuls, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie issued words of support for the South Carolina governor. But Carly Fiorina said the speech hit the “wrong note,” and Trump himself pretty much would have fired Haley if possible.

Haley is “weak on illegal immigration” and “big on amnesty,” Trump said Wednesday on MSNBC.

One thing is clear from this contretemps: Immigration is fast on its way to becoming a litmus test for the conservative wing of the Republican Party.

That wasn’t always so. President Reagan signed legislation granting amnesty to many of the illegal immigrants then living in the shadows in the US. And in 2013, Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida worked with other lawmakers in the “Gang of Eight” to produce an immigration reform bill, which later stalled in the House.

Senator Rubio would not engage in that same process today.

“A hard line on immigration, however it is defined, is now part of the conservative creed,” writes the right-leaning Ramesh Ponnuru in Bloomberg View.

But from the reaction to Haley’s speech, it is clear that this is a conservative and/or populist litmus test, and not yet a Republican-wide one, as is opposition to abortion and higher taxes. Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus praised Haley. So did House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin.

Does this presage a split in the party, as a Trump-Cruz conservative wing peels off from a Ryan-led pragmatic establishment faction? With such a direct rebuke in the State of the Union response, Republican leaders have given Trump an excuse to say the party is against him, so it’s OK to run as a third-party candidate. Or vice versa: If Trump wins the nomination, it’s not inconceivable that the establishment itself mounts a third-party effort. Romney-Haley 2016, anyone?

“@nikkihaley response illustrates the drift toward three parties in America. Hard to overstate how much is at stake in GOP race,” tweeted Jonathan Martin, a national political correspondent for The New York Times.

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