If Americans outside of South Carolina didn’t know Nikki Haley’s name before, a lot more definitely know it now.
The nation’s youngest governor garnered praise from both sides of the political aisle for her levelheaded response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday. But what if she had given the same address to an audience in the Palmetto State?
“She wouldn’t hold office anymore,” said Gregory Torrales, South Carolina Hispanic Leadership Council president.
He is one of many in the state who see a contrast in the optimistic, reasonable and inclusive tone of the possible vice-president pick when she’s speaking to a national audience and the governor’s record back home in her conservative state – where Donald Trump holds a sizable lead in the upcoming S.C. Republican primary. Those observers point to several examples: Haley’s Arizona-style anti-immigration bill, her opposition to resettling Syrian refugees, her cautious approach on the Confederate flag issue and her refusal of millions in federal dollars in Medicaid expansion for one of the poorest states in the country.
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Here’s a look at what Haley said Tuesday night, and how those words gel with her actions in South Carolina.
Haley said: “Soon, the Obama presidency will end, and America will have the chance to turn in a new direction. That direction is what I want to talk about tonight.”
It’s easy to see why Haley is an appealing spokeswoman for establishment Republicans trying to counter the influence of front-runners Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, both of whom boast caustic personalities that strike some in the party as off-putting. Haley is young – a few days shy of 44 – charismatic and the first female and minority leader of a critical primary state.
She led her state peacefully through the aftermath of the racially motivated shooting that killed nine black parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last year, supported the subsequent removal of the Confederate flag from the Columbia statehouse and responded to the devastating floods that battered her state last fall.
“America is being introduced to Nikki Haley as kind of a mainstream candidate who took down the flag,” said Scott Huffmon, a political science professor and polling director at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.
“This Nikki Haley who has taken a center lane and angered some in the party for chastising the GOP – this is very different than (the) Nikki Haley who was propelled to the governorship by the tea party and the far right,” Huffmon said.
She was propelled by essentially the angriest wing of the party.
Scott Huffmon, Winthrop University
When Haley ran for governor in 2010 backed by the tea party, she was little known in the state and was certain to come in last – until a crucial endorsement from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin put her in front of the pack.
State Sen. Lee Bright, a Spartanburg Republican, said he wasn’t surprised to see the turnaround from tea party candidate to establishment favorite.
“I wasn’t too surprised with what she said,” he said. “A lot of folks, once they get into office, can take the base for granted. People that are reformers and more liberty leaning, as soon as they get into power the establishment needs to co-opt them.”
South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Matt Moore said he saw nothing wrong with Haley’s “sunny optimism” in her speech.
“Conservatism has nothing to do with tone of voice, and everything to do with vision and record. Gov. Haley has a strong conservative record and a clear vision for the country,” he said.
Haley said: “No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.”
Her speech was lauded for its more compassionate, inclusive tone, countering the anti-immigration rhetoric of Trump.
“We appreciate the tone she took because she wasn’t demonizing immigrants, and not inflaming xenophobia,” said Victoria Middleton, executive director of the South Carolina branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Even so, just sounding more inclusive than other politicians is not enough, Middleton said.
“She certainly signed (Senate Bill 20), which is a terrible law – its nickname is the ‘show me your papers’ law. which could depend on whether someone looks and/or sounds foreign,” she said.
In 2011 Haley signed a bill similar to Arizona’s infamous anti-immigration legislation, which critics said encouraged racial profiling while costing taxpayers millions of dollars. South Carolina was sued by a coalition including the ACLU and the National Immigrant Law Center, and a federal court blocked major parts of the new law.
The tough crackdown measure required police to check the immigration status of any person they stopped and suspected might be in the country illegally. It also set up the country’s first state-level immigration enforcement unit, with a $1.3 million price tag.
When we look at her record we do have concerns, these really draconian measures which we fought.
Victoria Middleton, executive eirector of the ACLU of South Carolina
“At that time 9.8 percent were unemployed in the state, and South Carolina had one of the highest unemployment rates,” said Torrales. “Where do you think we’d rather send millions of our tax dollars: getting them jobs or focusing on less than 1 percent of the population?”
Haley also joined a 2014 lawsuit against the Obama administration that alleged that the president had violated the Constitution when he announced executive actions that would spare from deportation as many as 5 million people living in the United States illegally.
Haley’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from India – legally, as she has always been careful to point out. “I am the proud daughter of legal immigrants – emphasis on the legal. My parents played by the rules and waited their turn,” she wrote in her 2012 memoir.
Moore said Haley’s background made her a more credible voice for the party on these issues, both in the state and for the nation.
“She is the daughter of immigrants, she’s faced discrimination and she has a very different and important story to tell about America for a party that needs to expand its reach with minorities and young people,” he said.
Haley said: “We removed a symbol that was being used to divide us.”
After a young white supremacist killed nine black churchgoers in Charleston last year, Haley responded to calls across the country to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse in Columbia.
Supporters say she had been waiting for the right moment. Others said she acted only because of the pressure of public opinion.
She plays to the crowd because she knows that she’s not addressing South Carolina but the nation as a whole. Politics as usual.
S.C. Hispanic Leadership Council President Gregory Torrales
At the 2014 gubernatorial debate, she implied that the flag was a non-issue because it was not hurting the state’s image.
“I can honestly say that I have not had one single conversation with a CEO about the Confederate flag,” she said, adding that the state had resolved the issue by becoming more diverse.
“We really kind of fixed all that when you elected the first Indian-American female governor, when we appointed the first African-American U.S. senator,” she said, referring to Tim Scott. “That sent a huge message.”
Even after the shooting Haley refused to take a position, and said that bringing up the flag debate would be damaging.
“My job is to heal the people of this state. . . . There will be policy discussions and you will hear me come out and talk about it. But right now, I’m not doing that to the people of my state,” she said.
Twenty-one days later, onlookers cheered as the flag came down.
Haley said: “We’re feeling . . . a health care plan that has made insurance less affordable and doctors less available.”
South Carolina public health advocates argue that there is no good reason to reject the millions in federal dollars the state would get under Obamacare to expand health care coverage to 340,000 people in one of the poorest states in the country.
With this week’s addition of Louisiana, 31 states have expanded their Medicaid programs under the Affordable Care Act.
“Not in South Carolina,” Haley said at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference. “We will not expand Medicaid on President Obama’s watch. We will not expand Medicaid ever.”
Like some other Republican governors, Haley has said it would be too expensive and inefficient.
“This is all about ideology,” said Jamie Harrison, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. “Haley is really hurting South Carolina by refusing to take this money.”
A 2012 report for the South Carolina Hospital Association written by the University of South Carolina’s Moore School of Business estimated that increasing federal funding through Medicaid would total $3.3 billion in economic output and $1.5 billion in labor income and would support nearly 44,000 new jobs for South Carolinians.
Residents whose income falls below 138 percent of the federal poverty level would be eligible.
“In her own state there are hospitals closing, including the one in her hometown,” Harrison said.
For now, presidential candidates are courting Haley’s endorsement – and giving her serious vice-presidential consideration. As she rebrands herself with a more mainstream national image, Haley may leave the details of her record behind in South Carolina.
“If a candidate from the far right gets the nomination, she could become the more centrist running mate,” Huffmon said. “She’s positioned herself well for that.”
S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley
Age: 43 (Her birthday is Jan. 20).
Hometown: Born in Bamberg, S.C., grew up in Columbia, S.C.
Education: Attended Orangeburg Preparatory Schools and Clemson University, where she graduated in 1994 with a bachelor of science degree in accounting.
Career: Represented Lexington County in the S.C. House of Representatives from 2005 to 2011. In 2010 she became the first woman to be elected governor of South Carolina, and she was re-elected in 2014. Her second term will expire in January 2019.
Family: Married to Michael Haley, a captain in the S.C. Army National Guard who was deployed to Afghanistan while she was serving in office. They have two children.