RICHBURG, SC — Nikki Haley, the self-proclaimed jobs governor, has sold a business on South Carolina again.
Haddon House Food Products chose to expand its 25-year-old distribution center in Chester County rather than build a new one in Florida because of incentives and support Haley offered during a 45-minute phone conversation with the New Jersey-based company’s chief executive.
“I assumed it would be a three- to five-minute conversation at best,” said a surprised Haddon House boss David Anderson Sr. during a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday with the governor an hour north of Columbia.
Haddon House’s 100 new employees join the more than 31,000 jobs that Haley’s office said have come to South Carolina since she took office in 2011 -- a key selling point for the Lexington County Republican winning a second term in the Governor’s Mansion.
The governor has not formally announced she will run in 2014, but supporters expect her to enter the race this summer. Meanwhile, she travels to economic-development events across the state that tout her jobs record, such as groundbreaking for a $25 million inland port in Greer on Friday, and continues to hold fundraisers, such as one in Washington, D.C., last Monday.
Her campaign operation, already open in downtown Columbia and fueled with $1.5 million in contributions, is making moves. A 164-person grassroots steering committee featuring state GOP chairman Chad Connelly was announced two weeks ago.
Early this week, the campaign will introduce a finance committee that includes Barry Wynn, who was finance chairman in former U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett’s 2010 gubernatorial run.
“There’s a lot of excitement about her being governor for four more years,” Wynn said.
The race setup
Haley wants her reelection operation running with a broad base of support when a formal announcement comes, said Tim Pearson, who managed the governor’s 2010 campaign and left as her chief of staff last fall to become her political consultant.
“The (grassroots) group has fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, party leaders -- there’s not a segment of the political world out there that’s not on our side,” he said.
Haley said she has other priorities now -- including helping her family while her husband is deployed in Afghanistan with the S.C. National Guard and promoting legislative issues such as ethics reform and road funding.
The campaign is preparing for a primary, Pearson said, even though she is not expected to face a serious challenge. Two significant potential rivals have decided not to run, state Treasurer Curtis Loftis and state Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort. A third, Tim Scott, was appointed by Haley to the U.S. Senate in December to fill Jim DeMint’s unexpired term.
Haley’s campaign believes she will face state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Kershaw Democrat who lost the governor’s race by 4.5 percentage points in 2010.
Sheheen attended the Democratic National Convention and a Democratic Governor’s Association meeting last year and positioned himself as a leader on government reform -- an issue Haley also claims.
“It’s fair to say Sen. Sheheen is certainly acting he is running for governor,” Pearson said.
Sheheen said last week that he has no plans to announce a gubernatorial campaign, preferring to concentrate on legislative issues, such as 4-year-old kindergarten, and “not focus on the horserace,” though he shares a common view among Democrats about Haley.
“I think it’s pretty apparent to most people that Gov. Haley has been running for re-election since she has been sworn into office,” Sheheen said.
Democrats recognize how well Haley has built a reputation for job creation. State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said Haley has been admirable in promoting economic development, though, in some instances, she takes more credit than she deserves.
Cobb-Hunter also expects a repeat of 2010, though she believes Sheheen will avoid the slow beginning that hurt his first gubernatorial campaign and talk about Haley’s record from the start.
“I think he was a little disconcerted to run against a woman,” she said. “She’s still a woman, but she has been governor for three years. … We get to ask voters: Are they better off for having her as governor?”
Haley’s job favorability numbers are improving but remain under 50 percent, according to a Winthrop University poll released last month.
Despite bringing jobs, the state’s unemployment rate remains among the nation’s highest. She had to fight off ethics charges last year stemming from her time as a state representative. Hackers stole personal data belonging to 6.4 million consumers and businesses last year from the S.C. Department of Revenue, one of the state agencies under her control.
“My goodness me, there was a lot of negative talk about her, but she strengthened her hand when she named Tim Scott to the (U.S.) Senate,” a Tea Party favorite and the state’s first African-American senator, retired Francis Marion University political scientist Neal Thigpen said. “Don’t bet against an incumbent even if she made mistakes.”
Pearson blamed some poll numbers on the general unpopularity of governors making sometime tough and unpopular choices.
“She has done a lot things she said she was going to do,” Pearson said. “She’s making people proud of the state (as) a place where people can find jobs and be proud of their government.”
Winning old rivals
Haley’s grassroots reelection committee is supposed to show how she has brought the party together after a rough 2010 gubernatorial primary where she was attacked for her lack of a political experience and accused of having affairs without concrete evidence, political experts said.
She also has worked to improve her relationship with the General Assembly hurt by her personal legislative report card and criticisms in her autobiography. She did not issue a legislative report card last year, and she is seen as working better to collaborate with lawmakers this year.
“Clearly, she knows she has the power and is using it positively,” said Luke Byars, a Haley grassroots committee member who was Barrett’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign manager.
The governor has won a national stage -- speaking at the Republican National Convention last year and chairing the Republican Governors Association’s main fundraiser last week.
“She’s very popular outside South Carolina,” Byars said. “They are seeing what’s happening in South Carolina and appreciate what she is doing. … We’ve got a rising star, and with unified support she has the potential to be one of the most effective governors in the state’s history.”
Haley’s grassroots committee also includes a few Tea Party veterans, a group expected stick with the governor despite not always agreeing with her decisions, such as backing presidential hopeful Mitt Romney in the primary.
“Some of them won’t get on board, and they are targeting her now,” said Allen Olson, who left the Columbia Tea Party after he felt some in the movement veered away from fiscal issues to social ones. “These are people with personal agendas. They thought that they helped get her elected and thought they could control her. That didn’t work out.”
The finance committee being announced this week is sign that Haley might be winning another coalition, said Wynn, who was former state party chairman during Gov. Carroll Campbell’s tenure.
“A lot of the Carroll Campbell Republicans have gotten excited about campaign,” he said. “Like Campbell, she focuses on job creation and reform.”
Haley did not have their support in the 2010 primary because Wynn said, “she had not built the credibility as an economic development champion.”
“She has shown she has kept her eye on the target,” he said
‘We’re all partners’
Before she grabbed a gold-painted shovel at the Haddon House groundbreaking in Richburg, Haley stood before a group of employees and local officials and announced she works for Anderson, the company’s CEO.
“My job is whatever you need whenever you need it, we in South Carolina are here,” she said.
Anderson said Haley is different than the other S.C. governors has worked with over 25 years.
“She is much more accessible than other governors and even more so than in other states where we have facilities,” he said. “She’s very hands on.”
Haley gives job prospects her personal cell number and tries to visit their plants when asked. And she’s always pitching.
“Whatever we can do to help you expand … let us do that,” Haley told Craig Carlock, chief executive of The Fresh Market grocery chain, a Haddon House customer who attended the groundbreaking. “We’re all partners in this.”
Last month, Haley attended a seven groundbreakings, plant tours and economic development announcements and participated in 11 economic development calls and meetings, according to her public schedule.
“The worst thing is to look too comfortable in the Governor’s Mansion,” Citadel political scientist Scott Buchanan said.
Haddon House was her second visit to Chester County last week. She interrupted a trip to Washington for a Republican Governors Association conference a week ago to meet with an industrial prospect.
“What would you think if the governor came in on a Sunday morning to talk with you?” Chester County supervisor Carlisle Roddey said. “That would make a big difference to me. I think what she’s doing helps a lot.”