Two people shake hands on a stage.
Chairman of the Connecticut GOP Ben Proto introduces former S.C. Gov. and presidential candidate Nikki Haley at the 2023 Prescott Bush Dinner. Erica E. Phillips / CT Mirror

In a speech to Connecticut Republicans in Stamford Wednesday, former South Carolina governor and 2024 presidential hopeful Nikki Haley laid out where she thinks her party has fallen short. 

Delivering her stump speech to a hotel ballroom of more than 500 Republicans at the party’s annual Prescott Bush Dinner, Haley kicked things off by taking Congressional leaders to task over the national debt.

“It would be easy for me to say Biden did that to us. But our Republicans did that to us,” Haley said. “When you see this debt discussion that’s happening now, know that it’s a national bipartisan disgrace.”

She called out Congressional Republicans for approving trillions of dollars in COVID stimulus, and she said she’d work to “claw back” any of those funds that haven’t been spent or were obtained fraudulently. 

“Don’t ever let them tell you Republicans and Democrats don’t agree on anything,” she said. “They love to waste your money.”

A former accountant, Haley’s message of fiscal restraint could resonate with Connecticut Republicans weighing their options in the 2024 presidential race. 

Rep. Joe Hoxha, R-Bristol, attended the dinner and said he hadn’t heard other candidates calling for clawbacks of unspent COVID dollars.

“That’s kind of a big niche issue for her. She should definitely stick with that,” he said. “God knows we need to take care of our finances, and we need to get our financial house in order.”

Haley also delivered a conservative message on social and cultural issues, from school curriculum to immigration to transgender athletes.

“We have biological boys playing in girls sports. It is the women’s issue of our time,” Haley said, receiving enthusiastic applause and cheers. When she vowed to “defund sanctuary cities once and for all,” the audience erupted, with one attendee shouting, “Hell yeah!”

But throughout her speech, the self-described “South Carolina girl” returned to a theme of positivity — appearing to draw a contrast to her opponents in the GOP.

“I’m gonna tell you what I told South Carolinians when I became governor: No more whining. No more complaining. Now we get to work. How do we fix it?” she said.

Hoxha called it “a little cheeky.” But Rep. David Rutigliano, R-Trumbull, who also attended the event, said he appreciated the sentiment. 

“I really think she fits the mold of Connecticut Republicans, you know — socially moderate, really about economic development, very patriotic, sort of positive,” Rutigliano said. 

“I’m really into the positive message,” he added. “I think we always forget why we all liked [President Ronald] Reagan. Whenever you listened to him talk, it always felt good.”

Haley appeared to be trying to tap into that brand of positivity.

“My parents were Democrats until Reagan,” she said. “Not because they were actually Democrats, but because Republicans didn’t talk to them.”

She told the evening’s attendees that she planned to campaign to voters across a wide range of demographics.

“Republicans have lost the last seven out of eight popular votes for president. That’s nothing to be proud of,” she said. “The Republican Party has started siphoning people off. That’s not how we win. We win by adding people in.”

Erica covers economic development for CT Mirror. Before moving to Connecticut to join the staff she worked in Los Angeles for public radio’s Marketplace and, before that, for the Wall Street Journal's L.A. bureau. She grew up in Minneapolis, MN, graduated from Haverford College and earned a master’s in journalism from the University of Southern California.