First lady Jenny Sanford has endorsed Lexington state Rep. Nikki Haley in her five-way race for the 2010 Republican governor's nomination.
In a letter released to the public, Sanford praised the 37-year-old hospital executive and said Haley was the kind of leader she wanted for S.C. She noted Haley's push for more on-the-record voting, a stance that angered House leadership.
"She still didn't back down," Sanford wrote. "And she got results - we now have an unprecedented number of votes on the record.
"She's principled, conservative, tough and smart."
Haley has been a legislative ally of Gov. Mark Sanford, and many assumed Haley would win his endorsement. But Haley has spent the weeks since Sanford's five-day June disappearance and later admission of an extramarital affair keeping her distance from the governor - including removing his photo from her campaign Web site.
The first lady's endorsement once again ties Haley's political future to a Sanford.
"Some folks are questioning if (Haley's) a credible candidate," said Danielle Vinson, a political scientist at Furman University, "but Jenny Sanford carries some weight.
"It sends a signal (to Sanford supporters) that you might not be wasting your vote."
Haley has filled her days traveling the state speaking to political and civic groups, but her fundraising trails Republican rivals. She raised $148,000 in the third quarter and has about $278,000 on hand, according to the most recent state campaign finance reports.
Two of her rivals, U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett of Westminster and Attorney General Henry McMaster of Columbia, have more than $1 million on hand. Two other candidates, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer of Greenville and state Sen. Larry Grooms of Berkeley County, also have banked more money than Haley.
Sanford, a former Wall Street executive, provided significant guidance in her husband's gubernatorial victories, and the million-dollar question - or possibly $2 million - is, can she marshal Sanford's network of donors toward Haley?
"The events of the past few months might make the first lady more effective (at influencing the race)," said Greenville-based consultant Chip Felkel. "I don't think it will be enough to change the race.
"It's great, it's a high-profile endorsement, but does it translate into fundraising?"
Felkel noted the Sanfords have never been deeply involved with county-level GOP activists, connections other candidates have spent years developing. Many of the donors who led Mark Sanford's fundraising efforts have signed on with Haley's rivals.
The first lady's endorsement could spark some interest among women voters. Though South Carolina has among the fewest elected women in the country, women - including S.C. Republican Party chairwoman Karen Floyd - are influential in party leadership.
"I'm excited they're involved," said Charleston County GOP chairman Lin Bennett of Haley and Jenny Sanford. "It might have an impact. (Sanford's) a strong conservative. A lot of women admire her."
Jenny Sanford's letter also touched on how her family is coping with the aftermath of her husband's admission of an extramarital affair. In August, Jenny Sanford and her four children moved out of the Governor's Mansion and into the family's Sullivan's Island home.
"We all know this past year has been difficult for our state on many levels," Sanford wrote. "It's been hard for me and my family too. But our family is resilient, and we will be fine. And the people of our state are resilient too. I have no doubt South Carolina will get back on its feet."
Reach O'Connor at (803) 771-8358.