Politics & Government

What would Nikki do? How Haley's shadow is dividing SC GOP primary for governor

From SC Governor to UN Ambassador: Nikki Haley’s year in review

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley quickly gained national and international attention as America's Ambassador to the United Nations. Haley submitted her resignation as UN Ambassador on October 9, 2018.
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Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley quickly gained national and international attention as America's Ambassador to the United Nations. Haley submitted her resignation as UN Ambassador on October 9, 2018.

She's gone but not forgotten.

More than a year after Gov. Nikki Haley resigned the state's top job to become President Donald Trump's ambassador to the United Nations, Haley's shadow still looms over and is dividing the GOP primary to succeed her.

"It's really similar to how people pandered to (supporters of) Carroll Campbell forever," said former S.C. GOP Chairman Katon Dawson of Columbia, referring to the popular Republican who was S.C. governor from 1987 to 1995. "When you have someone that successful, of course, you would want to pander to their voters."

Just as Campbell cast a shadow over S.C. politics long after he left office, "any candidate, Democratic or Republican, would be well-served to understand how well Nikki Haley ran and served as governor," Dawson said.

But Haley's political legacy is divided.

Some former Haley supporters are backing Gov. Henry McMaster. Others are backing Catherine Templeton, McMaster's top challenger for the GOP nomination for governor.

McMaster — now running for a full term after Haley's departure elevated him to the Governor's Mansion from the office of lieutenant governor — has tapped former Haley campaign strategist and chief of staff Tim Pearson as a consultant to his 2018 bid.

On the other side of the S.C. GOP's fracture, Orangeburg lumber magnate and Haley supporter Mikee Johnson is helping to bankroll the campaign of Templeton, a former Haley cabinet director.

A timeline of State of the State addresses that captures Nikki Haley's run as governor of South Carolina.

Touting their Haley ties

Both Republican candidates tout their ties to the former governor.

McMaster was elected lieutenant governor in 2014, the last time the governor and lieutenant governor ran separately.

McMaster had endorsed Haley, then a little-known state representative from Lexington, after she finished first in the 2010 GOP primary for governor, ending McMaster's own bid that year for the GOP nomination.

"The governor and the ambassador really hit it off," said Trey Walker, deputy chief of staff to Haley early in her first term and now chief of staff to McMaster. "That's why, immediately after the primary, he got on the bus and traveled with her."

The McMaster camp also could do math. Haley almost won the Republican primary outright — without a runoff — in 2010, taking 49 percent of the vote, and odds were she'd win the GOP runoff easily. She did.

When Haley declared victory on election night in 2010 and, again, in 2014, McMaster was there with her.

"People have visually seen that they genuinely like each other," Walker said.

Though he wasn't elected, Henry McMaster was sworn in as Governor of South Carolina after former Gov. Nikki Haley became U.S. Ambassador of the UN. Here is what we know of McMaster's policies since he took office.

But this year, Templeton arguably is running a campaign that more directly parallels Haley's 2010 campaign — as the political outsider, promising to reform the State House, who is challenging a longtime GOP politician and insider.

"There are a lot of parallels between Catherine and Nikki's campaigns," said Chad Walldorf, who chaired Haley's Board of Economic Advisers. "Both are relatively lesser known outsiders running with the goal of shaking up the system. ... Catherine is probably even in a better position than Nikki was in terms of name recognition and fundraising."

As in 2010, Walldorf noted, McMaster is an "establishment" candidate in the GOP primary.

Walldorf was on the transition team that recommended that Haley name Templeton, a Mount Pleasant labor lawyer who had voted for her Democratic opponent, to head the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. Later, Templeton went on to direct the state Department of Health and Environmental Control under Haley as well.

"I thought she was a change agent, and she exceeded my expectations at LLR and at DHEC, which I had really argued for years was an ungovernable agency," Walldorf said.

Catherine Templeton is running for SC Governor as a self-proclaimed conservative political outsider. Here are some of the policies on her platform.

Ties that divide

Unlike the 2017 special election in the 5th District in Congress, when Haley supported Ralph Norman in the GOP primary and had her hand slapped for violating the Hatch Act, the former governor has not injected herself into the 2018 GOP race for governor.

But other Haley allies are highly critical of Templeton.

In a January tweet storm, Pearson, the former Haley strategist turned McMaster's paid consultant, tweeted that Templeton had changed her position on the potential sale of troubled utility SCANA to Dominion Energy because McMaster supported it. And he castigated her for claiming credit for Haley administration actions that, he said, she had no part in.

"At some point enough is enough," Pearson tweeted. "South Carolina is doing too well ... for Catherine to be permitted to lie her way to the most important office in the state."

But Kenyon Wells, who was on the DHEC board when Templeton was director of that agency, says Templeton should not be underestimated.

"Her background in labor law is not easy," Wells said. "People probably didn't take her seriously, but she's very smart."

But, Wells added, "You have to judge her on her, not on Nikki. You can't compare the two."

Bannon or Trump?

The incumbent McMaster still has the advantage, with polls giving him a clear lead with two months until the June 12 primary.

"He's been around. He's known," said Neil Thigpen, a former political science professor at Francis Marion University. "All he needs to do is divide up the undecideds and he's almost there."

Thigpen thinks Templeton has undercut herself by going too far to the right, running a populist campaign that seems less like Haley and more like Haley's current boss, Trump.

"She lost support fooling around with (Steve) Bannon," Thigpen said, referring to the controversial former White House strategist Templeton praised during a visit to South Carolina last year. Bannon, Templeton said, was a "voice for the rest of us."

"If you're a moderate conservative Republican, (you say): 'He doesn't speak for me.' "

Clemson University political scientist Dave Woodard thinks McMaster has undercut Templeton by appealing to conservative voters, including sealing the support of Trump himself.

"She's trying to run as a right-wing outsider," Woodard said. "But there's not much running room to the right of Henry."

McMaster also added a female outsider of his own to his ticket when he chose Upstate businesswoman Pamela Evette, an outspoken Trump supporter, as his lieutenant governor running mate.

Like Templeton, Evette might owe a clear debt to Haley's trailblazing run, Woodard said.

"She had a successful couple of terms," Woodard said of Haley. "Now, gender is never questioned or brought up."

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