Politics & Government

How Nikki Haley shocked S. Carolina GOP — by winning

Rep. Nikki Haley took the majority of the GOP vote in the gubernatorial primary in South Carolina.
Rep. Nikki Haley took the majority of the GOP vote in the gubernatorial primary in South Carolina. Rich Glickstein/The State/MCT

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Trey Walker calls the one-page graph of Attorney General Henry McMaster's gubernatorial tracking polling the most depressing sheet of paper that he has ever seen in politics.

The chart shows exactly when McMaster, the one-time front-runner for the Republican nomination for South Carolina governor, was passed by Lexington state Rep. Nikki Haley: May 18.

Walker said the McMaster campaign had viewed the GOP race as a Cold War standoff between superpowers McMaster and Barrett, misreading the political insurgency that Haley had tapped into. But a May polling question brought reality home: Voters who typically favored experience now said they wanted a fresh face.

“That’s when we knew there wasn’t anything we could do,” Walker said. “We were two ships passing in the night.”

Observers say Haley, who secured the Republican gubernatorial nomination in a walk, is a charismatic candidate whose campaign team planned a smart race built on her strengths. Chief among them are her natural abilities as a politician. Haley is unflappable, with an ability to connect both in person and through advertising.

Haley also received a handful of well-timed assists from political allies, including S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford and his former wife, Jenny. Then, during the campaign’s final two weeks, Haley’s support was galvanized by scorched-earth attacks that she successfully pinned on the political establishment.

Nikki Haley is best when she is face-to-face with voters.

It is a talent she used – knocking on doors and sharing Krispy Kremes – during her first State House run in 2004, and it was a skill that Haley had to fall back on as her campaign struggled for months to make inroads.

Campaign manager Tim Pearson said Haley’s strategy was to build enough support to make it into a runoff, and then hope that enough voters liked what they had seen by that point. Pearson said he knew Haley’s message was a winning one for a year when many voters are saying they have had enough of the way government has been run and are looking for a new direction.

Haley also had a compelling personal story – the daughter of Indian immigrants who earned an accounting degree and balanced the family business’ books.

Barrett’s campaign knew in February that Haley posed a threat. Haley was running fourth in Barrett’s polling, said his campaign manager, Luke Byars. But Haley jumped to an eight-point lead after those polled were read a short description of her. It was impossible to paint Haley as part of the establishment, Byars said, after she lost a choice committee position because, Haley said, of her efforts to require lawmakers to cast more on-the-record, roll-call votes.

“Nikki Haley could have said anything because she was different and she looked different,” Byars said. “She is very disciplined. She was the only candidate that would take on other candidates at the debate.

“To her credit, she zeroed in on Gresham from the very beginning.”

But Haley also has political skills that cannot be taught, Pearson said.

Seeking out every sign of approval, he said, Haley would note when something in her stump speech got a head nodding or elicited a gasp – such as when she talked about legislative roll-call voting statistics – and adjust her talk to emphasize those points more.

Opponents marveled at how consistently Haley delivered her stump speech and hit all her marks during debates.

“It had been clear in smaller audiences. She had a good message,” McMaster said. “The candidate herself was the key.”

Pearson said Haley had to start with small audiences – “winning rooms,” the campaign called it – slowly growing her support. When Haley finally began running television ads late in the campaign, the public responded just as strongly.

In districts where Haley was not running television last spring, Pearson said, S.C. GOP voters gave her a 36 percent favorable rating. In districts where her ads had run, she had a 64 percent favorable rating.

But Haley still had to depend on a dissatisfied electorate to win the primary, a pattern in S.C. politics. Former state party chairman Katon Dawson reminded Haley that she was in the same position that former Gov. David Beasley was during his 1994 GOP gubernatorial primary campaign. At one point in that race, Beasley was in third with far less money than his opponents. Eventually, however, Beasley passed the field to win.

“None of it would have mattered if she wasn’t as good a candidate as she is,” Pearson said, adding what Haley’s opponents also admitted: They could not build any momentum. “If any of (her opponents) had taken off, this wouldn’t have happened.”

The Sanford link

Haley entered the race last spring with a potent ally in Gov. Mark Sanford. Sanford, a term-term Republican, was popular – having spent the spring opposing the use of federal stimulus money in the state budget. He also was an effective fundraiser and a national political figure as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

But that came to a crashing halt when Sanford disappeared for five days last June, only to later tearfully admit an extramarital affair with an Argentine woman.

Haley quickly scrubbed references to the governor from her sparse Web site – her economic plan is a paragraph long – and spent the next few months keeping Sanford at arm’s length as the media, law enforcement and lawmakers scrutinized his e-mails, travel records and schedule.

Sanford made Haley a legitimate contender, Pearson said, but people wrote her off after her mentor became a political pariah.

“The Sanford stuff was, right off the bat, a huge problem for them,” said Byars, Barrett’s campaign manager. “Their financial viability, all throughout the campaign, made it difficult for them.”

Without the governor’s help, Haley said she was left “begging” donors for money instead of getting Sanford’s fund-raising help.

“I don’t think he was in a position to do that,” Haley said of Sanford’s ability to help her raise money while the S.C. GOP was censuring him and lawmakers were considering his impeachment.

But ReformSC, a nonprofit started to support Sanford’s restructuring agenda, did step in on Haley’s behalf. The group purchased $400,000 of television advertising, beginning May 10, that Haley’s campaign could not afford on its own. The ad, featuring Haley speaking at an April Tea Party rally, was the introduction she needed to pique voter curiosity.

A judge ordered the ads off the air about two weeks later because they illegally promoted Haley’s campaign, but, by then, she had received the needed bump. (Pearson declined to discuss the ads.)

On runoff night – nearly a year to the day that Sanford announced his affair – Haley’s nomination victory was a clear sign GOP voters wanted more of the debate about spending, restructuring and taxes that Sanford began during his two terms.

“I don’t think it says that much about me,” Sanford said. “It says a whole lot for our administration, a whole lot about the ideas that our administration believes in.”

But Haley’s former opponents suspect the governor played a larger role in Haley’s victory than he is letting on.

They think Sanford enlisted the Republican Governors Association on Haley’s behalf before he stepped down as that group’s chairman. The group issued a strong statement the night of the June 8 primary suggesting Barrett exit the race, rather than force a runoff, and included images of Haley in a web video prior to the June 22 runoff.

Haley has attended two Republican Governors Association events, in Sun Valley, Idaho, last August and a candidate event in Georgia in May. Pearson said the group had not assisted the campaign. (Efforts to reach association executive director Nick Ayers were unsuccessful.)

However, McMaster staffer Walker and Barrett staffer Byars said they see connections between Haley and the association, including the association sharing a consultant with a third-party group that ran an ad critical of Barrett.

Jenny Sanford to the rescue

The low point for the Haley campaign was last October, campaign manager Pearson said, when it filed a quarterly fundraising total of just $147,000. By contrast, Barrett raised more than $500,000 that quarter and, including transfers, McMaster raised more than $1 million.

Haley’s campaign was driving hours to small fundraisers with no up-front guarantee of contributions to learn several hours later that it only had raised a couple hundred dollars.

“We were really questioning as to whether she was a viable candidate,” Pearson said, noting pundits and the public were writing Haley off. “There’s nothing to go on, that far out from an election, other than money.

So the campaign played the only card it had at the time, asking for help from former first lady Jenny Sanford.

Jenny Sanford and Haley knew each, and Jenny Sanford had pledged whatever help she could offer. A month after the dismal campaign finance report, Haley announced Jenny Sanford’s endorsement. It was the first good news for the eventual nominee.

Jenny Sanford also opened doors and wallets in the Charleston area in a race where the only Lowcountry candidate eventually dropped out, Pearson said.

“The Charleston money crowd, who had no dog in the fight, started to come our way,” he said.

The Lowcountry was key to Haley’s victory as she swamped the competition in Charleston, Beaufort and Horry counties. In each of those counties, Haley registered more votes than her three June 8 opponents combined.

“Her support on the coast went from OK to phenomenal,” said Barrett staffer Byars.

Though Haley had an endorsement from Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and 2008 GOP presidential candidate, Jenny Sanford’s support was special.

“Jenny Sanford meant a lot because it came in the very beginning,” Haley said. “It came before any poll numbers were there. It came when I was fourth. And it came because she cared about the direction the state was going to go and she wanted to weigh in. I’ll forever be grateful that she was there when a lot of people weren’t.”

Sarah Palin calls

The Haley campaign was in the Charleston apartment of staffer Taylor Hall, preparing for campaign stops the next day with Jenny Sanford, when Todd Palin called.

Palin said his wife, the former GOP vice presidential nominee, would be in Charlotte the next day for a National Rifle Association meeting. She wanted to come to South Carolina to endorse Haley.

The Haley campaign, and friends such as RedState.com’s Erick Erickson, had been trying for months to land a Palin endorsement. Now the campaign had about 24 hours to pull together what would become the most significant event of the governor’s race.

Pearson said Palin had seen a video the previous fall of Haley speaking but was leery of getting involved in the GOP primary. The McMaster team, which had run U.S. Sen. John McCain’s winning 2008 S.C. Republican presidential primary campaign, also had sought Palin’s endorsement. McCain, McMaster staffer Walker said, had asked Palin to back McMaster weeks prior.

Now, just as Haley was starting to gain traction, Palin supercharged her campaign.

The event drew about 1,000 people to the State House grounds, the largest rally of the campaign. Students drove hours from the beach to attend the rally. Many said they came just to hear Palin. They left knowing a lot more about Haley. Footage of Palin from the rally was used in subsequent campaign commercials.

“It came at such an important time when people wanted to see credibility,” Haley said, “when they saw the momentum but wanted to feel more.”

But the true audience was the national and local media.

From that point on, Byars said, Haley had everyone’s attention all the time and that coverage dictated the race. Pearson said Haley began the campaign known by about 6 percent of S.C. GOP voters. Now, he said, 92 percent of those voters know who she is.

Prior to the Palin rally, Walker said the McMaster campaign’s media monitoring showed that McMaster was getting about 100 mentions a month on television news – the most of any campaign. The week of the Palin announcement, he said, Haley jumped to about 300 mentions on television news.

“I quit looking at it at the end of May,” he said. “She was overwhelming us in earned media coverage.”

Allegations of a sexual nature

Haley was already dominating media coverage when political blogger Will Folks posted a story – just 15 days from the primary – on his website claiming an “inappropriate physical relationship” with Haley, the married mother of two.

The bombshell shut down the Haley campaign for more than a week as Folks released late-night phone records and text messages trying to prove his claim, and Haley denied an affair.

Rival campaigns were ignored. They risked a political minefield if they did weigh in on the story.

The McMaster campaign told staff not to talk about the infidelity charges in even the most casual or off-the-record conversations with friends or colleagues.

“Somebody is going to get blamed for this,” Walker said. “We do not need to be out there talking to people.”

Folks’ claim was followed by two thunderbolts a week later.

First, Columbia lobbyist and Bauer advisor Larry Marchant claimed a one-night stand with Haley at a 2008 Utah school choice conference. Then, the Thursday before the election, state Sen. Jake Knotts called Haley – and President Barack Obama – a “raghead” on an Internet political show.

Knotts, who resembles “The Dukes of Hazzard” character Boss Hogg, was the perfect foil to crystallize Haley’s stump speech pitch that she was the candidate the Columbia “good ol’ boys” feared.

Byars said Barrett’s polling showed Haley’s numbers were starting to fall back into the low 30s after the Palin-Folks-Marchant brouhaha, but Knotts’ slur nearly pushed her over the 50 percent she needed to win the primary outright on June 8. Haley’s capture of 49 percent of the GOP votes on primary night, the other campaigns said, left them no ability to chase her down during the two-week Republican runoff.

McMaster still was liked, according to his campaign’s polling. But, two weeks before the primary, Walker said one-time McMaster supporters were giving his campaign the bad news: I like Henry, but I’m voting for Nikki.

It would have been possible to overcome the Palin endorsement, or the ReformSC advertising, or the two weeks of Folks and Knotts, Walker said. But combined they were political jet fuel for a candidate perfectly suited for the state’s political mood.

“When somebody jumps 20 points in two weeks, that’s lightning in a bottle – nothing stops that,” he said. “Nikki and her team beat us fair and square.”

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