Haley relishes role of ‘kingmaker’

2-0 in June, governor plans more endorsements, report cards

gnsmith@thestate.comJuly 1, 2012 

Gov. Nikki Haley’s ethics are under fire. But the Lexington Republican still has political clout with many S.C. GOP voters.

In two races this month, Haley’s endorsement helped her favored candidates reverse course and win.

Haley says she is not through trying to influence local elections.

Instead, she plans to try to use her political power in November’s general election, endorsing more yet-to-be-determined candidates. That could open the door to the Republican governor endorsing petition candidates who are taking on GOP incumbents.

Haley also once again will issue report-card grades for lawmakers, trying to influence local voters.

“The governor has always seen the report cards as a tool to inform the public — that’s as important this year as it was last, and she has no plans to discontinue them,” said Rob Godfrey, Haley’s spokesman.

But while Haley’s staff touts her 2-0 June record as a S.C. GOP kingmaker, others doubt whether the first-term governor’s endorsements — or anyone’s — really sway many voters.

Endorsements are good only for getting a candidate’s face in the news cycle, said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist.

“You can’t give too much credit to endorsements. Most voters don’t pay attention to them,” Sabato said. “There are exceptions. But, typically, an endorsement gives you the vote of the endorser and — about half the time — the endorser’s spouse. That’s it. That even applies to endorsements from governors.”

‘Wind in our sails’

Haley endorsed Horry County Council Chairman Tom Rice over former Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer in the GOP primary runoff to represent the new 7th District in the Grand Strand and Pee Dee. Until the final days of that race, Bauer led, most observers said. After Haley’s endorsement, however, Rice gained ground, handily winning 56 percent of the vote.

Haley also backed incumbent state Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, over former Sen. John Hawkins, a Republican but a Haley foe. Internal polling a couple of weeks prior to Haley’s endorsement showed Bright’s support at 29 percent compared to Hawkins’ 38 percent. After Haley’s endorsement, however, Bright took nearly 61 percent of the GOP primary vote.

Leading up to Haley’s endorsement of Rice in the 7th District, Bauer was gaining traction with his message that Rice was a moderate willing to compromise, lacking the backbone to fight for real fiscal reform in Washington. Bauer also was outspending Rice, including about $450,000 of Bauer’s own money that he used to spread that message in mail pieces and TV ads.

Internal polling showed Bauer up by 10 percentage points the Thursday before last Tuesday’s runoff.

Enter Haley who hit the campaign trail with Rice, claiming he was the true conservative and Bauer was untrustworthy.

“The message that ‘Tom Rice is some squishy moderate we can’t trust’ was completely debunked by a Haley endorsement,” said Walter Whetsell, Rice’s political consultant and a Haley ally. “Her endorsement on Friday put wind in our sails. There’s no other way to view those circumstances in that 72-hour period of time ... than to suggest that.”

Rice won last Tuesday’s runoff by 12 percentage points.

Whetsell concedes endorsements are not as significant as some claim. But in the case of Rice, who was getting dinged for lacking fiscally conservative credentials, an endorsement from onetime Tea Party favorite Haley held clout.

“The governor has always been willing to make a tough decision if it means moving our state forward,” spokesman Godfrey said. “This week, that meant highlighting the difference between Tom Rice, a businessman who will make South Carolina proud in Washington, and Andre Bauer, a self-interested career politician who would have embarrassed our state.”

The race also was personal for Haley. In the 2010 governor’s race, Haley claimed Bauer was behind claims that she had had an affair, which she denied. Bauer has denied spreading the allegation.

However, Haley’s endorsement alone did not turn the 7th District race alone, most agree.

The Rice campaign also hit Bauer hard on TV in the waning days of the race, saying he had supported raising the state sales tax and used his political office for personal gain.

Scott Malyerck, Bauer’s campaign manager, said Rice’s last-minute ads were key. “The last week, they issued character attacks. They really ramped it up.”

Political consultants also say Bauer’s negatives remained high with many voters — in the mid-30s — because of questions about his maturity, limiting his ability to attract new votes in the runoff.

Still, Malyerck agrees Haley’s endorsement impacted the race.

“Anytime you have a sitting governor of your own party who comes in and endorses in a Republican primary, that has impact. She’s still a popular governor,” Malyerck said. “I don’t think it was the end-all to us losing the race, but it certainly helped.”

‘They were trending our way’

While Sen. Bright gives Haley some credit for helping him keep his Spartanburg seat, he says he doesn’t know how much credit is due.

“It’s hard to quantify what the impact was (of Haley’s endorsement). I do think it helped,” said Bright, who said his internal polling showed him losing to former Sen. John Hawkins by 8 percentage points in March.

A May 30 poll found a similar nine-point margin in Hawkins’ favor.

However, Bright says his race flipped the weekend before the June 12 primary, when polls showed him leading by a couple of percentage points.

Then, Bright reached out to Haley’s camp, asking for help. She responded with an endorsement.

“They (voters) were trending our way, and I think her endorsement helped solidify our lead,” said Bright.

Again, for Haley, the endorsement was at least partly personal.

Hawkins and Haley are foes. Hawkins, a state senator from 2001 to 2009, blames Haley for preventing payday lending reform in 2008. And Haley was stung when Hawkins endorsed her Democratic opponent, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden, in 2010. Bright mailed out campaign pieces near the end of his June 12 primary race, blasting Hawkins for endorsing Sheheen.

Hawkins says Haley’s endorsement was no game-changer.

Instead, he points to a state Supreme Court decision that kicked more than 200 candidates off the ballot. Hawkins says that ruling caused many mainstream, moderate Republicans to stay home, voters who would have supported him.

“If it had been a more normal turnout, then we would have won,” said Hawkins, who added his campaign’s internal polling showed him ahead to the very end. “His (Bright’s) campaign and the Tea Party just did a better job of getting their voters out.”

Reach Smith at (803) 414-1340.

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