Gov. Nikki Haley’s reported short list of five finalists to succeed resigning Republican U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint includes a pair of congressmen, a one-time S.C. attorney general, a state agency chief and a former first lady.
The list, provided to The State by a source close to the governor, has a clear favorite, according to veteran S.C. political observers: Tim Scott, the Tea Party-backed congressman from North Charleston who would be the first African-American U.S. senator from the South since Reconstruction if appointed.
U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-Spartanburg, is considered the other most serious candidate, but the former state solicitor does not have as big an upside as Scott, experts agreed.
Former state Attorney General Henry McMaster of Columbia, a Haley supporter with political experience, generally is not seen as being as conservative as DeMint, who was willing to be the lone dissenting vote on bills to make points on fiscal issues.
The names of former first lady Jenny Sanford and S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control director Catherine Templeton — both Haley backers from Charleston — were included to bolster their possible future political ambitions, political observers said.
The list of names floated allows Haley to reward friends with a bit of flattery and gives her enough time to hear opinions from potential contributors to her next campaign, University of South Carolina political scientist Mark Tompkins said. “You get to reassure supporters,” he said.
Haley has given no timetable on replacing DeMint, who is leaving with four years remaining on his term to head the Heritage Foundation, though a decision is expected within a week.
“Everybody would like to know the answer,” Scott said Tuesday. “We need to support the governor in whatever decision she makes.”
The governor distanced herself from reports that she has a short list during a visit to North Charleston on Tuesday.
“Only my husband knows what’s in my head right now, so I’ll leave it at that,” Haley told The (Charleston) Post and Courier.
With the exception of Jenny Sanford, the names of the finalists have been mentioned frequently in political circles since DeMint announced his resignation last week. Here is what S.C. political experts have to say about the five:
U.S. Rep. Tim Scott
The 47-year-old insurance agent has won enough respect in two years in Congress to head the GOP freshman caucus and win a seat on the House Ways and Means Committee. He reportedly is DeMint’s pick and has received the endorsement of the American Conservative Union.
The drawbacks include his lack of experience in Congress and the loss of a spot on such an influential House committee, USC’s Tompkins said.
Bottom line: Scott is the front-runner, capable of winning a special election for the Senate seat set for 2014 and beyond. “He has the conservative credentials and would make history,” said Bob McAlister, a media consultant who was chief of staff for then-Gov. Carroll Campbell.
What he said: “I was surprised and pleased (to make the short list), but I still want to give the governor time to make a good decision.” Scott said he is putting his energy into working to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff.” He said he has not heard from the governor but said Tuesday, for the first time publicly, that he would accept the job if offered. “It would be difficult not to.”
U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy
The 48-year-old former solicitor appears to be the second choice on the list.
Like Scott, he also has strong conservative credentials and won with Tea Party backing in 2010. Experts differed on whether Gowdy has enough name recognition, though they agreed he knows how to handle controversy due to his time as a prosecutor.
Still, Haley could use the Lowcountry support that she could gain by naming Scott more than the Upstate support that she would get by naming Gowdy, said GOP strategist Chip Felkel of Greenville.
Also, “It’s no secret that Trey has found D.C. to be frustrating,” Felkel said.
What he said: Gowdy was not available for comment, his spokesman said.
McMaster’s candidacy lost luster when Haley said she would not appoint a placeholder to the Senate, someone who would agree not run for the seat in 2014.
“If her problem is with the Tea Party, then Henry would be a difficult choice,” Felkel said.
“He is about as establishment Republican as you could get,” McAlister said. He added that McMaster, who is the only finalist to win statewide office, does not appear as conservative to some because “he might not as flaunt it as much as others.” McMaster, who threw his support to Haley after he lost to her in the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary, has the maturity and experience to the hold the office, McAlister said. He is the oldest finalist at 65.
What he said: McMaster continues to decline to comment.
The conventional wisdom is that the name of the former first lady, who backed Haley’s gubernatorial run, is being floated to aid her future entry into politics — likely as a candidate for Scott’s 1st District congressional seat if he is promoted.
“It’s a nice gesture given what she has been through,” Tompkins said of the former first lady who divorced then-Gov. Mark Sanford after he had an affair. “But she has no direct political experience.”
Sanford, 50, is touted for running her ex-husband’s campaigns and being a de facto chief of staff in the governor’s office.
“She has sympathy and popularity, but this is circle-the-wagons time in the Senate, and voters are looking for toughness and experience,” Clemson University political scientist David Woodard said. “Running campaigns and dealing with (Democratic U.S. Senate leaders) Dick Durbin and Harry Reid are two different things.”
What she said: “If asked, I’d seriously consider accepting the offer,” Sanford told The Associated Press. “I’m honored to be on such a list.”
The Charleston lawyer has been appointed by Haley to run two state departments — Health and Environmental Control and Labor, Licensing and Regulation, where she made cuts and other pro-business decisions, McAlister said.
The 41-year-old, who declined to move to Columbia when named to the state posts, reportedly has interest in statewide office but appointing her “would raise a lot of questions about the motivation of the governor,” Tompkins said, which is problematic for a first-term governor with sub-50 percent approval ratings. Also, like Sanford, the Senate at this time is not suited for a political newcomer.
“This is nothing like the typical appointment that briefly gets a lot attention and then things can go quiet,” McAlister said. “The country could come apart at the seams soon. There is no learning curve on this one.”
What she said: Efforts to reach Templeton were unsuccessful.