Nikki Haley Has a Playbook for Winning Tough Races, but 2024 Is Different

Nikki Haley was polling in the low digits, fighting for oxygen among better-known and better-funded rivals in a contest clouded by scandal and involving the man whose job they all sought.

This was 2009, and Ms. Haley was the underdog candidate for governor of South Carolina. At the state Republican Party’s convention that year, she was the last contender to speak. Before she took the podium, Katon Dawson, then the state party’s chairman, handed her a rust-coated nail from a jar collected from an old building in Orangeburg.

“‘Honey, this is a tenpenny, rusty nail,’” Mr. Dawson recalled he told Ms. Haley. “‘You’re going to need to be meaner and tougher than that to get through this.’”

In Mr. Dawson’s telling, Ms. Haley was unfazed, responding: “‘No problem, I’m going to be governor.’”

Ms. Haley first stunned her party in 2004 when she ran for the State Legislature in a conservative district in Lexington County. She unseated Larry Koon, the longest-serving member in the South Carolina House of Representatives at the time and a fellow Republican with deep familial roots in the state.

The daughter of Indian immigrants, Ms. Haley, 51, was an accountant helping her mother expand her international clothing shop. She had no political experience, and top consultants spurned her. She lagged in fund-raising and spent most of the race polling in the single digits. Even so, she was the target of ugly, racist attacks.

Ms. Haley took those in stride, her friends said. She countered with the aggressive campaign schedule and retail politics that have become her signature, knocking on doors and passing out doughnuts.

“I was discounted because I was a girl,” she writes of that first campaign in her memoir, “Can’t Is Not an Option.” “I was discounted because I was Indian. I was discounted because I was young.”

Without leaning into any of those identities, Ms. Haley beat Mr. Koon by more than 9 percentage points.

Mr. Dawson said that none of the “good ol’ boys” in South Carolina politics — himself included, at first — believed she had a real shot in that race. Her primary opponents were political heavyweights: Henry McMaster, a former state attorney general who is now governor; Gresham Barrett, then a popular U.S. Congress member; and André Bauer, then the state’s lieutenant governor.

On the debate stage in Milwaukee, Ms. Haley did not surprise those who had watched her tussle with opponents in the past. Both allies and detractors have observed her talent for seizing opportunities — and for navigating changes to her own positions amid shifting political terrain, such as when she eventually supported removing the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol.

As governor, Ms. Haley had initially expressed little to no interest in discussing the removal of the flag. But she changed her mind in 2015, after a white supremacist killed nine Black parishioners at an African American church in Charleston, S.C., including the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, a state senator. Joel Lourie, a former Democratic state senator who considered Mr. Pinckney a friend, said he had been one of Ms. Haley’s harshest critics until she “rose to the occasion.”

“She is as tactical, talented and ambitious of a politician you will ever meet,” he said of Ms. Haley.

Still, what worked for Ms. Haley in the past may not be enough in 2024, as she positions herself as both a friend to Mr. Trump, and the candidate best able to move the party beyond him in order to beat President Biden.

“I can understand why she might have supreme confidence in her ability to win right now,” said Adolphus Belk, a political analyst and political science professor at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., recalling her strong performances at campus forums during her first bid for governor and later as governor.

But the same Tea Party wave Ms. Haley tapped as part of her rise — grass-roots energy with deep strains of racism and white racial grievance that Ms. Haley and other Republican presidential candidates have continued to downplay — created the space for Mr. Trump’s climb to the White House and has allowed him to retain his dominance in the party and presidential field, Mr. Belk said.

One striking example of how Republican politics has changed: Support from Mr. Romney, now a U.S. senator from Utah and a fierce critic of Mr. Trump’s, would be unlikely to help endear Ms. Haley to the primary voters she needs to woo.

“She has managed to be pretty effective at contradiction over the years,” said Chip Felkel, a longtime South Carolina G.O.P. strategist. “But this is a bigger stage.”

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *