South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) is attracting widespread praise for leading the bipartisan effort to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the Statehouse.
Haley’s swift response has put her back in the national spotlight, stoking speculation that she could be the vice presidential nominee on the GOP’s 2016 presidential ticket. The 43-year-old governor saved her party from divisive bickering and damaging headlines that could have lingered for months.
While other prominent Republicans hemmed and hawed, Haley was clear at her press conference Monday that the flag must come down. Defenders of the flag, meanwhile, largely remained silent.
The long-term political impact of Haley’s new stance — which is much different than her position last year — is unclear. But the short-term effect is obvious.
“It’s been her finest hour as governor,” said David Woodard, a Clemson University professor who also serves as a Republican consultant in the state. Woodard noted that he had worked for one of Haley’s rivals in the GOP primary when she was first elected in 2010 and has never been particularly enthused about her.
“I think she has handled it about as well as could be imagined,” said Will Folks, the South Carolina political blogger who sparked a firestorm in that same 2010 campaign when he claimed he had an affair with the married Haley. (Haley denied his story.)
Folks added that he thought she had “done a good job of being a uniter. And I say that as someone who has been critical of the governor on a wide range of issues. I don’t think she’s done a good job as governor.”
Republican consultant Ford O’Connell also extolled Haley’s performance and, asked about the broader political implications, suggested that “her VP stock is probably on the rise again at the moment.”
Haley, whose national persona is that of a self-controlled politician, let her emotions show in the aftermath of the killing of nine African-Americans at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., last Wednesday evening.
When she appeared at a press conference announcing the arrest of the suspected perpetrator of the attack, Dylann Roof, Haley’s voice cracked and she became tearful.
“We woke up today, and the heart and soul of South Carolina was broken,” she said. “And so we have some grieving to do, and we’ve got some pain we have to go through.”
Haley’s actions in the heat of the moment have not won universal acclaim. A Facebook post she wrote shortly after the atrocity noted that “we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.” Some critics suggested those words were evasive given the broad understanding even at the earliest stages that the attack was racially motivated.
Others have pointed out that, as recently as last year, Haley suggested during a televised debate in her reelection campaign that the Confederate flag did not need to be removed from the Capitol grounds. She said that the flag was “a very sensitive issue” and that perceptions of the Palmetto State were important. But she also said of her efforts to attract new employment to the state, “I can honestly say I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag.”
That changed abruptly on Monday with Haley’s news conference urging the flag’s removal. Standing by her side were many of the major political figures in the state, including Republican Sens. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottHow expanded credit data can help tackle inequities Dems erupt over GOP 'McCarthyism' as senators vet Biden bank watchdog pick Why Democrats' prescription drug pricing provision would have hurt seniors MORE and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks This Thanksgiving, skip the political food fights and talk UFOs instead Biden move to tap oil reserves draws GOP pushback MORE, House Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn and GOP Rep. Mark Sanford, who also served as Haley’s predecessor as governor.
In February, the Public Policy Polling firm found that 50 percent of those surveyed in South Carolina supported keeping the Confederate flag, while 40 percent were opposed. The shooting appears to have changed that sentiment.
“I thought the people she had with her [helped create] a tremendous amount of momentum now to do this thing,” Woodard said.
The political agility of Haley’s remarks drew accolades, as she emphasized how private citizens would retain the right to fly the flag if they wished and insisted that Roof had exhibited “a sick and twisted view” of the emblem.
However, she added, “for many others in South Carolina, the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past. … It’s time to move the flag from the Capitol grounds.”
During her remarks, Haley mentioned her own election — she is the nation’s second Indian-American governor, after Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) — as evidence that South Carolina could transcend the wounds of its past. She had made the same point in the 2014 TV debate that touched on the flag issue, suggesting her election was one of the things that had “fixed” public perceptions of the state.
That point also highlights a reason for attractiveness on the national level to a Republican Party that has struggled with crucial demographic groups, including younger women and non-whites.
O’Connell said that Haley could potentially help with this problem were she to be added to a presidential ticket. One asset, he suggested, is that “she could stop the bleeding of women to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCountering the ongoing Republican delusion Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Poll: Democracy is under attack, and more violence may be the future MORE.”
In 2012, there had been some speculation that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney could choose Haley as his running mate. That didn’t happen, and some have suggested that Haley could struggle with the rigorous vetting that is required of vice presidential nominees.
During her first term, a data breach at the state’s Department of Revenue resulted in personal information from almost 4 million people being exposed. In 2013, she was fined $3,500 by the state ethics commission for failing to disclose the addresses of eight campaign donors. Still, Haley won reelection handily in 2014.
Earlier this year, Haley took some heat from the right when said she could accept an increase in the gas tax if it was coupled with other tax cuts. That issue is likely to resurface if she were being vetted for the No. 2 slot in 2016.
Now in her second term, Haley is scheduled to leave the governor’s mansion at the start of 2019.
Many people believe she has national aspirations.
“There’s no more room for her to run for office here,” Woodard said. “I think she would look for something at a national political level.”