Flanked by a pair of 2016 presidential contenders, Nikki Haley tried her darnedest to smother the notion that she’s going to nationalize her reelection campaign for governor in South Carolina.
“It’s funny. You guys asked that in 2010. It’s like every couple years y’all think this means something national. It doesn’t,” she flatly told reporters on Monday, minutes before kicking off her 2014 bid with a rally featuring Govs. Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, and Scott Walker.
And then Perry interjected.
“It is about a national effort,” the Texas governor confirmed, swiftly contradicting Haley’s answer while seated just a few feet from her. “It’s about blue states versus red states. It is a national conversation I hope Americans are engaging with over the course of the next few years. Look at which one of these states’ policies actually work, and my instincts are that most of the time it’s going to be a red state.”
If there was any doubt about the strategic path Haley will take to hold on to her governorship in the face of middling poll ratings in a ruby red Southern state, Monday’s events laid them to rest.
Three big-name governors with designs on the White House hopped on a stage before a sparsely populated crowd in Greenville to laud Haley’s tenure and repeatedly tether her opponent, Vincent Sheheen, to President Obama and the national Democratic agenda.
“There’s a simple question: do you want to stand with the president and his allies, like the one they’ve got running against Nikki, who believe that you measure success in government by how many people are dependent on the government?” Walker asked.
Minutes prior, Jindal drew cheers from the audience when he praised Haley for fighting the GOP’s cause du jour. “She stood up against Obamacare and said no for the United States and for South Carolina,” he said.
The first female and minority governor in Palmetto State history finds herself in a unique position. Haley’s political capital is demonstrably stronger nationally than locally. As a result, her biggest strength, even some Republicans here concede, is her ability to nationalize the contest at every turn.
“There’s national Nikki Haley and there’s local Nikki Haley, and she’s perceived differently through those different lenses,” said an elected Republican official who requested anonymity in exchange for candor. “But the upper hand she has is that South Carolina will grow redder over the next year.”
The local Haley registers an approval rating in the low 40s and must defend an unemployment rate that hovers above the national average. She also has been pelted with competency questions following a seismic security breach that compromised millions of her residents’ personal data and a slow response to a tuberculosis outbreak in a rural elementary school.
“If I was a governor with a 43 percent approval rating, I’d try to get more than three governors, I’d try to get 10 more governors to come prop me up,” slugged South Carolina Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison. “She is a broken governor overseeing a broken government.”
Haley’s team has been studiously preparing for an aggressive march by Democrats. And by some measures, they are correct in their contention that she’s in better shape now than in her first insurgent bid. This time, she enjoys the backing of the Chamber of Commerce, boasts a $2 million fundraising advantage, and will benefit from the turnout expected for two safely Republican U.S. Senate seats. Manufacturing-job gains have lent Haley a talking point for a falling—if not sterling—unemployment rate that is 2 points below where it was when she took office.
But the oft-repeated joke on the ground in South Carolina is that Haley’s only truly been popular for a whirlwind three-week period during her initial primary race in 2010, in which she landed the endorsement of Sarah Palin, received substantial financial assistance from Mark Sanford, and looked like the victim of a concerted smear campaign that flung sordid accusations of sexual improprieties.
“She caught lightning in a bottle,” said the elected Republican.
Added another GOPer from the Lowcountry who is friendly with Haley: “She’s essentially a little-known second-term state lawmaker who ended up becoming governor.”
Now this unlikely governor is an incumbent in an early-presidential-primary state where she’ll command unwavering attention and virtually limitless resources from the biggest rising GOP stars. Her gender, youth, and Indian descent will undoubtedly land her name on vice-presidential shortlists, even as she vies for reelection.
Originally the trio of governors were only slated to host a fundraiser at a private home Monday, but Haley adviser Rob Godfrey said the campaign decided to expand it to a full-blown rally due to the “huge response.”
In terms of size and excitement, the event failed to meet expectations. (A GOP Faith & Freedom barbecue featuring Rand Paul in an adjoining county may have been partly to blame.) But even so, the kickoff fundamentally accomplished the goal of portraying Haley as an electric figure the brightest political luminaries are drawn to.
After Perry, Jindal, and Walker pumped Haley up with brief, punchy speeches, the governor finally took the stage and reeled off a checklist of legislative accomplishments: caps on tort reform, a business tax cut, a voter ID bill.
But the largest applause line was saved for last.
“When it came to Obamacare, we didn’t just say no, we said never ... We are not expanding Medicaid just because President Obama thinks we should, and we’re going to keep on fighting until we get people like Senator [Tim] Scott and everybody else in Congress to defund Obamacare,” she said to piercing yelps.
Perry may have strayed off message in the media briefing in acknowledging the national contours of the campaign, but by the end of the rally, it seemed he had been only attempting to exercise some good old-fashioned straight talk.