News that Gov. Nikki Haley’s chief of staff is leaving that post in two weeks to run her political operation marks the de facto beginning of the 2014 governor’s race, political experts said Monday.
“She’s raising a lot of money and her chief of staff is going to run her political arm,” said Bob McAlister, a media consultant who was chief of staff for Gov. Carroll Campbell. “You don’t have to be a Ph.D. to figure this out.”
Haley has not announced whether she will seek re-election, a decision the governor’s office expects next summer. However, her campaign already has raised more than $1 million and a political group, started by her supporters, has collected another $555,000.
“The goal is to make sure the minute that she decides that she wants to run that we have a campaign ready to go,” said Tim Pearson, who went from Haley’s campaign manager to her chief of staff after her surprise 2010 win.
Pearson helped Haley overcome a double-digit deficit to defeat two better-known Republicans to win the GOP nomination before beating Democratic Sen. Vincent Sheheen in the general election.
Pearson, 30, will leave his $128,750-a-year job in the governor’s office to open a political consulting firm. He said the first-term Republican governor would be his only client and he would be paid as a consultant by Haley’s campaign. Pearson’s new firm is called Salt Box Strategies, named after the Connecticut street where he grew up.
Pearson leaves 18 months before the 2014 GOP primary, where Haley could face opposition. Efforts to reach two of the most frequently mentioned possible opponents — state Treasurer Curtis Loftis, R-Lexington, and state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort — were unsuccessful Monday.
“The best way to preclude (a challenge) is gear up, get serious and say, ‘Bring it on,’ ” S.C. political consultant Warren Tompkins said.
No successor to Pearson as Haley’s chief of staff, one of the governor’s closest confidants, was named. Possible candidates include Haley’s three deputy chiefs of staff: Katherine Haltiwanger, who oversees operations; former state Rep. Ted Pitts, who handles legislative and Cabinet affairs; and Christian Soura, the governor’s budget expert.
Pearson said the timing of his departure had been planned so his successor would have time to work with Haley to prepare for the next legislative session, starting in January.
But Pearson also could work on another campaign in the final weeks before the Nov. 6 election. Asked if he might help Haley ally Katrina Shealy try to unseat state Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, Pearson said he would do any work the governor requested.
Tompkins, also a former chief of staff under Campbell, said Pearson’s move out of the governor’s office also would end any questions about how he is spending his time. “There’s so much scrutiny,” Tompkins said. “You have to be careful with all the controversy with state ethics and election laws.”
In a statement, Haley praised Pearson for his “tireless dedication” and “integrity, intelligence and common sense,” adding she looked “forward to receiving his good counsel in the days and months ahead.”
An early supporter of GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Haley has insisted she will not accept a Cabinet position or other administrative post if Romney wins in November.
After joking that he will get to wear jeans to work again, Pearson said he was pleased with his 21 months in the governor’s office.
“It was exciting to see Continental (Tire) break ground and know people in Sumter will have jobs for generations because of your work,” he said.
Staff writer Adam Beam contributed.