Nikki Haley’s “Mama Grizzly” march to inevitable electability and national political celebrity has hit a snag in South Carolina
Polls are tightening, and the buzz on my recent trip to the Palmetto State was about growing questions over Haley’s candidacy—persistent rumors of infidelity (now with affidavits), failures to file her taxes on time, and a group of influential conservatives uniting to oppose her candidacy. To top off the strangeness, her Democratic opponent for governor, Vincent Sheheen, has been endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce, which is embroiled in a national fight with President Obama.
It’s just the latest set of twists and turns for a great and beautiful state that has become a punchline in too many political jokes this election cycle.
The national media has been rooting for Haley, who would be the first woman and first ethnic minority governor of South Carolina. At age 38, the daughter of South Asian immigrants is telegenic—a potent symbol of the American Dream and the growing diversity of the Republican Party—and she’s already graced one quartile of Newsweek’s cover.
Accusations of infidelity came from a prominent conservative blogger and a lobbyist during a contentious GOP primary. Both were hotly denied by Haley and dismissed by national journalists as another ugly example of dirty tricks in South Carolina politics. Haley triumphed decisively in a runoff, and it was widely assumed that the worst was behind her.
But in the run-up to Election Day, a steady stream of awkward allegations about Haley have cropped up. The CPA candidate was found to have filed her taxes late three times since 2003, incurring more than $4,500 in fines. Emails obtained by the Associated Press contradicted her past statements that she had left her previous employment as a fundraiser for a local hospital on good terms, showing instead considerable animosity between her and her employer. In addition, questions have been raised about work she did for companies that had business with the state legislature. The questions have gotten so intense that an influential group of current and former Republican Party officials called Conservatives for Truth in Politics was formed to oppose Haley’s candidacy, claiming more than 100 members. The Charleston Post and Courier quoted an anonymous state senator Friday as saying privately that “few of the state’s 27 Republican Senators are prepared to vote for Haley.”
Now the infidelity accusations are resurfacing in the form of an affidavit signed by the conservative blogger—and former spokesman for Gov. Mark Sanford— Will Folks and lobbyist Larry Marchant detailing their encounters with the married Haley, a mother of two. It is sordid stuff.
Haley still has the Republican tidal wave of this election on her behalf, but momentum is shifting a bit on the ground.
The persistence of these accusers highlights an additional problem for the Haley campaign: Her denial of the affairs was accompanied by an unequivocal promise to resign from the office of governor if the accusations were proved to be true. This public commitment, though legally unenforceable, adds the serious prospect of even more instability in an executive office that has been subjected to investigations and scandalized inquiries over the past year.
It is worth noting that the reputation of Sanford seems to have largely been repaired since his acknowledgement of an Argentinean affair and subsequent divorce. The man who was considered a leading dark horse candidate for the 2012 GOP nomination now enjoys a 55 percent approval rating in the state and is seen as prescient in his criticisms of stimulus funds that would have increased the state’s social spending obligations down the line. Sanford is a strong supporter of Haley’s candidacy, seeing her election as an endorsement of his legacy, presumably only on fiscal matters and as a sign of his success in expanding the party base.
But recent polls show the race tightening between Haley and her Democratic opponent, Sheheen, a fellow 38-year-old state senator of Lebanese descent. A statewide poll conducted by Winthrop University found Haley leading by 9 points, but with Sheheen’s support more solid and enjoying an edge with independent voters, almost mirroring our Election Oracle’s 10-point spread. A less representative poll by Cranford and Associates conducted on September 30, found Haley leading by only a 3-point margin. And while our Election Oracle still gives Haley a 90 percent chance of victory on Election Day, my guess is that will shift to look like less of a slam dunk in these closing weeks.
Assumptions that the Republican nominee automatically wins statewide office in South Carolina are well-founded but not uniform. In 1998, Democrat Jim Hodges beat incumbent Republican Gov. David Beasley.
South Carolina has shown a determined ability to shed other stereotypes this election cycle. The GOP nominee of the 1st Congressional District, which includes the coastal region from Charleston to Beaufort, nominated an African American named Tim Scott over the son of Strom Thurmond in the primary. Beyond that mind-bending irony, Scott stands to be the first African-American Republican elected from the South since Reconstruction.
Haley still has the Republican tidal wave of this election on her behalf, but momentum is shifting a bit on the ground, and the Republican Governors Association is nervous enough to pump money into the state for negative ads featuring the president with flames behind his head and calling Sheheen an “Obama liberal in our own backyard.”
Supporters view the attacks on Haley as reflexive sexism from the state’s good ole boy power network, taking a page out of Sarah Palin’s conservative victim card playbook. But it could be argued that Haley has benefitted from a degree of well-intentioned sexism in the media. It’s fair to say that had detailed infidelity accusations been presented against a male politician, they would have been assumed to be true, based if nothing else on sordid historical precedent. Folks’ affidavit recounts the affair in unusual detail. But America has not yet confronted a female politician’s sex scandal—we don’t have a cultural precedent for it. And so the media was uncharacteristically quick to assume the best, not the worst, about a politician and chivalrously rallied to defend Haley’s honor.
Haley’s rise may seem inevitable according to national narratives, but it is far less assured among the voters of South Carolina. Whether the growing questions can shift momentum enough to derail her election in a decidedly red state remains to be seen, but it’s another reminder that nothing is inevitable in this strange election year. Voters are motivated more by what they are against than they are for, and nothing is decided until Election Day.
John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.