By winning re-election Tuesday, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley became just the fourth S.C. governor elected to a second term in office.
But as the 42-year-old former Lexington legislator prepares to push workforce training and road-repair plans when the General Assembly reconvenes in January, political observers and allies wonder if Haley will finish her final four-year go-around.
A handful of 2016 GOP White House hopefuls already are courting Haley, whose endorsement could help them in South Carolina’s first in the South presidential primary.
All that attention, which follows her support of GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney in the 2012 primary, has led to speculation that Haley might have a role in the next presidential administration if a Republican wins in two years.
While that is a possibility, Haley is more likely to complete her second term, friends and election watchers say, before heading into a business career built from the corporate contacts that she has groomed while in office.
The Associated Press and CNN projected Haley had beaten Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, for a second time, shortly after polls closed at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
The governor used her stature as a rising national GOP star to raise more than $8 million for her re-election bid — more than doubling contributions to Sheheen and surpassing the combined fundraising totals for herself and the Camden attorney in their 2010 campaign, which Haley won narrowly. Nearly half of Haley’s contributions came from outside South Carolina, where she held multiple fundraisers.
Speaking to supporters, Haley talked about becoming governor after growing up in Bamberg, a small town of 3,500.
“How would somebody like me grow up to do something good for you?” Haley said. “What makes me proud, and what I hope makes you proud, is what we proved four years ago, and what we continue to prove tonight, there are no boundaries for any little girl or any little boy in the state of South Carolina. ”
Haley will be turning 47 when her final term expires in January 2019.
“She’s got a lot of life left,” said Orangeburg business executive Mikee Johnson, a high school classmate who is on the board of Haley’s Original Six foundation.
Haley’s intentions will become clear in the first weeks of the legislative session, Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said.
If she takes a gentle approach with the General Assembly, not making waves, then Haley is looking toward 2016, he said.
“She will make broader policy speeches to market herself,” Huffmon said
But if Haley is thinking about the finish line of her second term, she will push hard for her agenda, hoping to leave a legacy.
“She will have voices telling her that, ‘You have a real chance to make changes in South Carolina because you don’t have to face another race,’ ” Huffmon said.
Some signs suggest an early departure is possible.
Haley’s successor as governor would be Republican Henry McMaster, one of her closest political allies, who won the race for lieutenant governor on Tuesday. Plus, Haley’s profile could rise. Later this month, she has a shot at becoming chairwoman of the Republican Governors Association, a post that would give her a national bully pulpit.
Much of the 2016 chatter is fueled by Haley’s company in recent months – appearing with six of the 11 leading GOP presidential hopefuls.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have headlined fundraisers for Haley. She also has appeared at events with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Rick Perry of Texas and Scott Walker of Wisconsin.
As the 2016 presidential primary approaches, those visits represent nonstop vice-presidential job interviews for the state’s first woman and Indian-American governor.
“Nikki Haley would be an amazing vice president with Jeb Bush and Chris Christie or any of those white males,” said Ed McMullen, a S.C. Republican strategist who is on Haley’s campaign finance team. “She will be on the top of vice president lists.”
Columbia car dealer Jim Hudson, who also is on Haley’s campaign finance team, said Haley has political skills that could take her to the national level.
“She has this presence about her, when she’s with a group,” he said. “This is just the beginning of her political career.”
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato agreed Haley will get mentioned as a vice presidential prospect.
But, he added, “Being picked? I doubt it.”
He questions why a GOP presidential nominee would need Haley on the ticket since South Carolina is squarely in the party’s electoral corner already. A Republican nominee could tap another minority governor, Brian Sandoval of Nevada or Susana Martínez of New Mexico, and increase their odds of winning a contested state.
“A dead dog would win the (South Carolina) electoral vote as long as the dog was a Republican,” Sabato said.
Plus, Haley would undergo major vetting by national news organizations, Sabato said. That vetting would dissect Haley’s ethics run-ins and rumors about infidelities, which Haley has denied vehemently.
Still, Sabato said he could see Haley landing a cabinet post. “(The president-elect) will want to have a diverse cabinet.”
Another possibility is becoming an ambassador, though few friends and analysts see that happening, especially when Haley has two children still in school.
“You already have a nice house and a nice car being governor,” former S.C. Republican Party chairman Katon Dawson said, adding he sees a cabinet post as more likely.
“She will have a full Ph.D in government after being governor for eight years,” Dawson said.
But the most probable route for Haley, according to associates and political experts, is that she completes her second, four-year term and then goes to work for – or running — a company.
“A lot of public officials, they want to cash in,” Sabato said. “A two-term governor, a woman and an Indian-American would be attractive to (corporate) boards.”
Haley has networked in the business community, including a number of foreign corporations, during her push to win thousands of jobs announced during her first term. She starts a 11-day trade mission to India next Tuesday.
“She is a superstar in the Fortune 500 world,” McMullen said. “She has a few things to focus on in South Carolina, and then the world is her oyster.”
Hudson said he traveled to Japan recently and met with Toyota officials who mentioned Haley.
“I never heard that in 40 years in this business,” he said. “People are talking about South Carolina more than ever. Does she get credit for all that? I don’t know but, as a South Carolinian, I’m proud.”
McMullen said he could see Haley working for a large corporation, such as a Google or a Wal-Mart, helping on on tax or regulatory issues as a vice president of government affairs. She also could be a chief executive of a smaller company.
“She’s a great saleswoman,” McMullen said.
Sticking around Columbia for her second term also would have its pluses.
The General Assembly that convenes in January should be considerably more friendly than the one that Haley faced four years ago. Gone are her adversaries, House Speaker Bobby Harrell and Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, a pair of Charleston Republicans.
Instead, Haley will be working new Senate leader Hugh Leatherman, a Florence Republican who has backed her economic-development efforts, and presumed House Speaker Jay Lucas, a Darlington Republican who does not have Harrell’s acrimonious history with Haley, dating to her days as a back-bench state representative from Lexington.
“It will be a lot easier,” said Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee.
Haley has given some hints as to her second-term agenda.
She has spoken about unveiling a plan to pay for road repairs in January. After winning $180 million in new state spending on education this year, the governor plans to push new proposals to develop a more technologically savvy workforce to fill the jobs announced during her first term. She also wants to pass new income disclosure laws and other ethics measures for public officials, which died on the last day of the legislative session this year.
“She has plenty she wants to do (with the Legislature),” said Republican political consultant Chip Felkel of Greenville. “That’s why I don’t see her going anywhere.”
Johnson, the business executive who also sits on her campaign finance team, said he thinks Haley will have a lot more fun during her second term than the first.
“The economy has turned,” he said. “The soil has been tilled and the seeds planted. And she wants to see where her work comes to fruition. She had a chance to put herself in the (U.S.) Senate if she wanted to (when Jim DeMint resigned), but she didn’t. I think she wants to stay in South Carolina.
“It would take only a real good deal to pull her away,” Johnson said.