How One Tragic Event Could Change Nikki Haley’s Political Future
Policy + Politics

How One Tragic Event Could Change Nikki Haley’s Political Future


South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley brushed aside talk over the weekend about all the political attention she is suddenly receiving.

The one-time Tea Party conservative and the first woman and first racial minority ever to be elected governor of her state has captured the nation’s attention with her dignified, sure-footed handling of the aftermath of the massacre of nine African Americans by a white supremacist in a Charleston, S.C., church last month.

Related: South Carolina’s Confederate Flag Joins Museum Collection  

Now there is renewed speculation about Haley as a possible vice presidential running mate in the 2016 GOP presidential contest.

While her state and the nation were still mourning over the shootings at the historic black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church June 17, the two-term governor swiftly and deftly convinced a hidebound state legislature to vote to lower and remove a Confederate battle flag that had flown over the South Carolina Statehouse for the past half century.

That flag had long been a symbol of slavery and southern defiance of the civil rights movement, and many viewed it as an affront to the death of one of the victims, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state legislator whose body lay in state at the capitol.

Shortly after she signed the bill into law last Friday, a seven-man South Carolina Highway Patrol Honor Guard, which included two African-Americans, slowly lowered the banner from its pole alongside a Confederate memorial near the Capitol.

“I think it meant a lot of things to a lot of different people,” Haley told Chuck Todd of NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday in discussing the import of that moment while brushing aside any discussion of all the national attention she is suddenly receiving. “What I can tell you was it felt like a massive weight had been lifted off South Carolina. We can truly say it's a new day in South Carolina.”

“It was emotional,” she added. “You know, I think that it was hard for me to look at that flag coming down and not think about the Emanuel Nine, not think about those nine people who took in someone that didn't look like them, didn't sound like them, and accepted him and prayed with him for an hour [before he shot them]. It is hard for us to not think about those nine people.”

Haley’s success marked a stunning evolution for a politician “who first ran for governor as a state lawmaker waving the tea party banner, but who was also subjected to ethnic slurs from her own side,” The Washington Post noted recently. “Once in office, she initially struggled to cope with South Carolina’s white, male-dominated establishment — often reluctant to insert herself into racial politics — only to emerge now as a prominent and confident leader of the New South.”

Related: South Carolina’s Leaders Unite to Call for Removal of Confederate Flag   

Haley was born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa to Sikh parents who had emigrated from India to Bamberg, S.C. Her father was a biology professor and her mother ran a gift shop. She got an accounting degree at Clemson University, where she met her husband, Michael Haley, according to the Almanac of American Politics.  She later worked for a waste-management company before deciding to challenge veteran Republican state Rep. Larry Koon. Haley went on to win on a strong platform of fiscal conservatism and tax relief.

In 2010, she was elected governor, succeeding Republican Mark Sanford, a close ally at the time.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, Haley frequently turned up on lists of GOP vice presidential possibilities, although Republican nominee Mitt Romney ultimately picked Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) ahead of Haley and a dozen others who were thought to be in the running.

In the wake of her extraordinary performance in dealing with the shootings and Confederate flag controversy, Haley suddenly has moved into the national spotlight. But with so many family members and friends of the victims and others still struggling to make sense of the killings, Haley appears embarrassed to discuss the possible political ramifications for her career down the road.

Related: Confederate Flag: A Small Step for Nikki Haley, a Big Move for the GOP   

When Todd asked Haley what she made of “the extra political attention you’ve been getting,” Haley replied that it was “painful” because “nine people died in Charleston.”

Here’s the Nikki Haley interview with Chuck Todd of Meet the Press.

The full clip from Meet The Press:

As time goes by and the 2016 South Carolina presidential primary approaches in late February, Haley inevitably will be the topic of intense speculation as a raft of Republican presidential candidates court her support and drop hints that she is among their favorites for a second spot on the ticket.

Months before the Charleston tragedy, Haley was already meeting with political suitors.  During one appearance with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Haley led the press conference that followed, making it clear that she would be closely questioning all the candidates who came through about their stands on the issues as they affected South Carolinians, according to one report.

“It’s not about taking pictures and holding a baby. We’re going to talk about South Carolina issues,” Haley said of the coming visits of presidential hopefuls. “And the candidates who come here and figure out what those issues are, I appreciate, and you should too. “ 

Related: South Carolina Governor Takes Aim at Union 'Bullies' in Boeing Labor Vote  

According to Real Clear Politics,  Haley and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker were elected the same year – 2010 -- and have been friendly since, sharing a strong antipathy towards unions. Haley, for example, has actively opposed efforts to unionize a Boeing plant in her state. Haley campaigned for Walker in his 2011 recall election, and Walker returned the favor by campaigning for Haley’s reelection in 2013.

Haley also is close to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and is on friendly terms with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who is seeking the GOP presidential nomination, as well as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, another GOP presidential aspirant.

As for Haley’s prospects for a second spot on the 2016 GOP presidential ticket, it is much too soon to say. But there is little doubt she will be generating a lot more interest than she did in the last election.

Related: Now It’s Congress in an Uproar Over the Confederate Flag   

“She is not at the top, no,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato in an email on Monday. “She will be on the long and maybe the short list, inevitably. How high on the list will depend on the nominee for president and his needs.”

“As we've learned many times, vice presidential candidates usually do less than advertised,” he said. “Would Haley cause a rush of women to the GOP ticket? Almost certainly no. See Palin, Sarah. And minorities? Doubtful. She might have some impact on Asian-Americans (5 percent of the national vote). Haley is from South Carolina, a guaranteed GOP state in November, so no bonus electoral votes.

So has she helped her chances with the Confederate flag issue? Yes, says Sabato. “Does it guarantee her selection or even her placement at the top of the list of possibles? No”