Lexington County Rep. Nikki Haley said Thursday she is launching a bid to become South Carolina’s first female governor.
Haley, 37, joins an already-crowded Republican primary field, but one still searching for a clear heir to the smaller government policies of Gov. Mark Sanford, who is ineligible to run again.
Haley, an accountant and mother of two, said she wants to make government more open and give residents a reason to feel more positive about it.
“I know what good government can look like,” Haley said. “I’m running for governor so the people of the state will know what it feels like.”
Haley is in her third term in the S.C. House, having unseated long-serving veteran Larry Koon in 2004. Haley has been a contrarian voice in the House, often standing against the GOP majority. She frequently has supported Sanford’s positions, but has also introduced her own issues.
Last fall, Haley called on the House to adopt rules requiring on-the-record voting, pushing through the change despite initial opposition from House leaders.
Haley declined Thursday to get into specifics about her position on a number of issues. But she said her campaign will focus on economic development, education, tax reform and limiting state spending.
MAKING A NAME
Haley is relatively unknown outside the Midlands and starts at a fundraising disadvantage.
The other announced GOP candidates are U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett of Westminster, state Sen. Larry Grooms of Berkeley County and Furman University political scientist Brent Nelsen of Greenville. Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer and Attorney General Henry McMaster also are weighing GOP bids.
McMaster and Barrett have reported $1 million each in their campaign accounts. Haley declined to say how much money donors have committed but said she has enough to “feel competitive.” She said she has yet to hire a consultant or a complete staff.
But Sanford could help change that. The Republican governor has said he plans to get involved in his successor’s election and has $1.7 million remaining in his campaign fund, which could be used on issue ads.
“It’s too early to endorse anyone,” Sanford said Thursday. “But I would say Nikki Haley would make a terrific and inspiring choice as governor, and she’s a great addition to the field of candidates.”
USC political scientist Blease Graham said Sanford’s nod likely would not carry a candidate to the GOP nomination. But Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said Haley may be able to embrace Sanford’s policies while rejecting his politics — which have led to a seven-year-long battle with the GOP-controlled Legislature.
Republicans “may see in her the things they liked in Mark Sanford without a lot of the baggage,” Huffmon said.
AN UNCONVENTIONAL CANDIDATE
To become governor, Haley will have to overcome questions about her Indian heritage and whether S.C. voters will accept a woman chief executive.
During her first State House run, anonymous ads in Lexington County questioned Haley’s faith. Haley was raised a Sikh but is now a Methodist.
Graham said S.C. voters have a long history of making religion an issue — from anti-Catholic attacks on late U.S. Sen. Jimmy Byrnes to anti-Mormon mailers when Mitt Romney was on the state’s 2008 S.C. presidential primary ballot.
“It will be a factor because this is South Carolina, the land of the lingering fog of Lee Atwater,” agreed Huffmon, referring to the late S.C. political consultant who raised issues of race and religion in campaigns.
Women also have not fared well in S.C. politics. The percentage of women in the S.C. Legislature is among the lowest in the nation.
But recent Republican politics, observers say, prove those issues may not be as important as they once were.
Louisiana elected Bobby Jindal, also the child of Indian immigrants, governor. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin drew raves from S.C. Republicans after she became a vice presidential candidate.
State Rep. Joan Brady, R-Richland, said GOP women sometimes lack the confidence to run and have more trouble raising money. She also said she has met women who say they will not vote for another woman. But Brady said Palin proved women will rally around the right candidate, one with a strong voice on women’s and family issues.
“They do bring something different” to a campaign, Brady said of female candidates.
Haley brushed those issues aside Thursday.
“South Carolina’s ready for me,” she said.
Reach O’Connor at (803) 771-8358.