Is she selling the New South or auditioning for a 2016 presidential campaign spot?
Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina is generating buzz that she’d be in the mix for the Republican vice presidential spot in 2016, following her successful handling of the removal of the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds after the shooting deaths of nine African-Americans inside a historic Charleston church.
Appearing Wednesday at the National Press Club, Haley teetered between deflective and receptive to the VP talk, at first dismissing it as a way-too-early political exercise, given that 17 Republicans are still elbowing each other to win the Republican presidential nomination.
“I’m not wasting any energy or any time thinking about that because I’ve got too much to do,” she said after her speech. “I’m trying to continue to heal the state, we’re trying to get back on track because we lost time, getting ready for a legislative session. . . . I’ve got a son in middle school, I got a daughter who’s a senior in high school, I’ve a husband who just came back from Afghanistan.”
That said, “If there’s a time where a presidential nominee wants to sit down and talk, of course I will sit down and talk,” she added.
Since the Confederate flag debate erupted, Haley has seen her star rise on the national stage.
The problem for our party is that our approach often appears cold and unwelcoming to minorities. That is shameful and it has to change.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley
She was the featured speaker at the Republican National Committee summer meeting in Cleveland last month. She engaged in a question-and-answer session before the attendees with RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, recounting the steps that led to the flag’s removal.
“If we can do that in South Carolina, just think what we can do across our country,” she said at the RNC meeting.
She impressed the Cleveland audience. Ada Fisher, an RNC member from North Carolina, called Haley “a beautiful woman.” Juliana Bergeron, an RNC member from New Hampshire, said Haley “stepped up on the Confederate flag. She didn’t wait until people told her to do something.”
Haley checks several boxes that Republicans would like to consider when crafting a presidential ticket: Southerner, minority, woman, conservative.
Add to that “the independence she showed,” said Solomon Yue, an RNC member from Oregon. “Republicans need to realize she did the right thing.”
None of this suggests Haley is a favorite to go on a presidential ticket. The memory of her Confederate flag stance will fade, and Yue noted, “You have to keep doing things to be visible. And you have to show consistency.”
You also have to distinguish yourself from others that check similar boxes. Mary Fallon is the second-term governor of Oklahoma. Susana Martinez, second-term governor of New Mexico, could be a rival, and unlike Haley, she comes from a general election swing state. So does Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.
“We have a number of strong women in office,” said Steve Duprey, an RNC member from New Hampshire.
While Haley has become popular outside of South Carolina, she’s had a sometimes tenuous relationship with the state’s Republican-dominated legislature.
She fought with the General Assembly over government restructuring and revamping ethics rules. She even tried unsuccessfully to order lawmakers back into session. Report cards that Haley issued for lawmakers after her first year in office further soured relations.
“To people outside the state, she comes across like the new face of the Republican Party,” said Scott Huffmon, director of the Winthrop University poll. “In South Carolina she’s very divisive, even within her own party. There’s no love lost for her in the legislature.”
If there’s a time where a presidential nominee wants to sit down and talk, of course I will sit down and talk.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley
Haley toned down her criticisms of lawmakers and won support for her education plan. Eventually, she also won passage of a government restructuring plan, which gave her office some additional powers.
In Washington on Wednesday, she portrayed herself as a daughter of a new South, an Indian-American who’s helping her state come to grips with its racial past while steering an economic renaissance as it shifts from a reliance on textiles to automotive, aviation and high-tech jobs.
The murders in Charleston and the removal of the Confederate flag thrust Haley and South Carolina into the spotlight in terms of race relations. But the second-term governor insists that her election proves the racial climate in her state had improved even before the tragic shootings.
“I would have not been elected governor of South Carolina if our state was a racially intolerant place,” Haley said. “And I would not have won the Republican primary if we were a racially intolerant party.”
Still, she seemed to chide Republicans, saying, “The problem for our party is that our approach often appears cold and unwelcoming to minorities. That is shameful and it has to change.”
“That is not just a black and white thing,” Haley said. “For Indian- and Asian-Americans, for Jewish-Americans, for Mexican-Americans, our party and our principles have so much to offer. It’s on us to communicate our positions in ways that wipe away the clutter of the problems.”
Haley said that “black lives matter,” uttering a phrase that several presidential candidates have been reluctant or refused to use. But she also appeared to criticize the Black Lives Matters movement for the violence that erupted in Baltimore, New York and Ferguson, Mo., following the deaths of African-American men by police.
“Black lives do matter, and they have been disgracefully jeopardized by the movement that has laid waste to Ferguson and Baltimore,” she said. “In South Carolina we did things differently.”
Andy Shain of The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.