CAN RISING GOP STAR NIKKI HALEY KEEP GOVERNOR’S JOB IN SOUTH CAROLINA?
Beset by controversies and low poll numbers, Haley is being targeted by Democrats.
♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor
COLUMBIA, S.C. (CFP) – She’s young, telegenic, has a compelling personal story, enjoys an enviable national political profile and governs a state where her party is practically invincible. But can South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley win re-election in 2014?
Standing before a gigantic American flag and flanked by three heavyweight Republican governors, Haley kicked off her campaign in Greenville on August 26, touting her record of job creation and taking the requisite swipe at Obamacare.
“When it came to Obamacare, we didn’t just say no. We said never,” Haley said at her kickoff, drawing an ovation from the faithful who came out to see her stand alongside Texas Governor Rick Perry, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
But, this being a governor who has faced controversy after controversy for the past four years, the rally itself quickly became an issue.
The crowd – described as “sparse” in media reports – was estimated at 300 by the Haley campaign. But Democratic activists who showed up to heckle insisted, with no small amount of glee, that only about 75 people showed up.
Democrats – who have lost six of the last seven gubernatorial elections in South Carolina –clearly smell blood in the water.
A statewide poll by Winthrop University in April showed Haley’s approval rating was at 43.5 percent – a weak number for an incumbent in a heavily Republican state. Indeed, her approval number in that poll was exactly the same as President Barack Obama’s, although her disapproval number was 10 points lower than his.
Haley’s expected Democratic foe is State Senator Vincent Shaheen of Camden, who lost to her by just 5 percentage points in 2010 and is spoiling for a rematch. In an op-ed piece published in the Greenville News on August 30, the senator slammed what he termed “a culture of secrecy and pattern of incompetence” in her administration.
“We can do so much better,” he said. “We can put South Carolina back on the path to honesty, integrity and prosperity and move forward together. But we need new leadership.”
Haley, who came out of nowhere to win the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2010 with a well-timed endorsement from Sarah Palin, has seemed almost snake bit from the moment she took office:
- While Haley was cleared of ethics charges brought against her, her critics have refused to let go of the allegations, accusing her of trying to thwart the investigations. The continuing controversy has sapped her popularity, despite the fact that she has made ethics reform one of her key legislative issues.
- She has sparred with legislators, including some from her own party. The state Supreme Court had to step in to settle one of those disputes.
- Personal information for millions of South Carolinians was stolen from the state revenue department. Haley was criticized for waiting two weeks to notify the public of the breach and not releasing a report on how it happened.
- Her administration was criticized for a slow response to a tuberculosis outbreak at an elementary school in Greenwood.
- In August, her campaign dismissed a volunteer with ties to what was alleged to be a white supremacist group.
- Haley’s office recently disclosed that she had been in a minor car accident during a trip to give a speech in North Carolina. She was criticized for raising campaign money during that trip while state taxpayers were paying for her security detail.
- Despite Haley’s claims to be a job creator, unemployment in the Palmetto State is still above the national average.
Still, Haley has some significant advantages:
- Unemployment is lower than it was when she took office, and her approval ratings have risen in recent months.
- The Winthrop poll showed that she had solid support among Republicans, making a primary challenge unlikely.
- She already has a $2 million fundraising advantage over Shaheen, with the ability to raise even more money from Tea Party conservatives across the country.
- And perhaps most significantly, South Carolina is arguably the most Republican state in the South, making winning a statewide office a mighty tall order for any Democrat.
If Haley wins in 2014, she would almost certainly be on the short list for the Republican vice presidential nomination in 2016, and a bid for the White House wouldn’t be out of the question. Her personal story as the daughter of Sikh immigrants from India would be attractive to the GOP, which has been trying to broaden its base among people of color.
Haley herself is rejecting any talk of national aspirations.
“It’s like every couple of years y’all think this means something national. It doesn’t,” she told reporters at her kickoff.
Perry, Walker and Jindal are all considered 2016 White House possibilities. Their very public support for Haley might help that effort in the Palmetto State, which holds the South’s first presidential primary.