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ELECTIONS 2014: How SC Gov. Nikki Haley won re-election

Gov. Nikki Haley had to prove herself to South Carolina voters to earn her 14-point re-election victory Tuesday.

Haley was a new face on the S.C. political scene when first elected four years ago and remained a relative unknown when she took the oath of office in January 2011.

Many lawmakers and corporate leaders were wary, viewing a Haley governorship as potentially a third term for her onetime mentor, the discredited Mark Sanford.

Then, the Lexington Republican started working to solidify herself for 2014 — raising lots of money, stealing an issue from Democrats, negatively defining her opponent, concentrating on winning jobs and bringing around the business community — and her much-expected rematch with state Sen. Vincent Sheheen.

What were the keys?

There were at least five that helped lead to Haley’s second win over the Camden Democrat.

Cranking up the money machine

In June 2011, Haley attended a New York fundraiser as the S.C. Legislature ended its session.

Haley started fundraising soon after entering office in 2011, including the first of many out-of-state events when she traveled to New York in June. She raised nearly $32,000 on the trip from a group that included doctors and others in the medical field.

For candidate Haley, years of handshakes and speeches paid off in 2014.

Haley had raised more than $2.5 million – including $1 million from outside South Carolina – by the time Sheheen entered the race in early 2013.

Haley would go on to raise more than $8 million – doubling Sheheen’s 2014 haul and matching what the pair combined to raise in their 2010 race.

That huge war chest allowed Haley to spend $1 million more on television ads than Sheheen. Haley also received the benefit of almost another $1 million in ads from the Republican Governors Association and The Movement Fund, a pro-Haley political group, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

Entering her second term, Haley is expected to remain a popular guest speaker to raise money for Republicans as a leader in the governors group and a minority, woman leader in the GOP.

Stealing an issue from Democrats

By earlier this year, the improving post-recession economy had bolstered state tax collections, and Haley had a plan to spend some of that money.

In January, Haley unveiled an education initiative that included more reading coaches, new technology and more state money for poorer schools.

Giving more money to education in a year when 124 state representatives were running for office was a no-brainer. The $180 million plan sailed through the General Assembly.

Democrats complained Haley had focused on education only in the last year of her first term, a cynical attempt to bolster her re-election chances. The governor countered that she took more than a year to develop her plan as she consulted with educators, parents and policymakers.

Either way, Haley had pulled a rug from under the Democrats, traditionally South Carolina’s pro-education party. Haley used the issue in her campaign to bolster her record for finding solutions without raising taxes or fees.

Sheheen had based his campaign in large part on being pro-education — proposing teacher-salary hikes and touting his successful efforts to expand 4-year-old kindergarten.

But Haley’s modest education plan — only $180 million in the state’s $7 billion general fund budget — allowed her to claim education as her issue, too.

Sheheen had to find another way to poke at the governor.

Attacking early and often

Unlike their first race in 2010, Haley had a record in office that Sheheen could attack this year, and not all that record was positive. Knowing that, Haley’s camp went on the attack early, trying to define Sheheen as quickly — an unfavorably — as possible.

Neither candidate for governor faced a primary in June, but ads slamming Sheheen began airing before St. Patrick’s Day.

The Republican Governors Association, which counts Haley as an executive committee member, launched five different anti-Sheheen TV ads in March and April.

The first three spots criticized Sheheen for supporting the expansion of Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act, a proposal that Haley opposed. The ads played on fears about higher heath care insurance premiums and lost jobs.

But the last two RGA ads drew more attention.

They attacked Sheheen, a Camden attorney, for representing criminal defendants, including cases involving domestic violence. The ads also noted Sheheen represented a sex offender who received a reduced sentence.

“Vincent Sheheen, he represents criminals, not us,” one ad said.

The ads did not note the cases were at least a decade old or that only a tiny part of Sheheen’s law practice involves criminal defense work. But protests by state and national lawyer associations – including reminders about constitutional rights and the fact that Republican Governors Association chairman Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, was a lawyer, too – went nowhere.

Instead, the ads did their job of framing Sheheen early. They scared voters, especially women, into thinking the Democrat would not fight violent crime.

The economy’s good timing

South Carolina’s jobless rate fell to a 13-year low just as Haley starting airing her first two TV campaign commercials.

The ads touted the state’s improving economy with one spot featuring business leaders giving Haley credit. (Economists said she deserved some of the credit but not all.)

The healthier economy helped blunt criticisms about a pair of major controversies in Haley’s administration — the massive hacking at the Department of Revenue and mishandling of child-abuse cases at the Department of Social Services.

Sheheen and petition candidate Tom Ervin hammered Haley on those controversies and others in the campaign.

But those failures failed to stick with voters who had heard Haley’s job-announcement numbers, 50,000-plus, and saw the state’s high jobless rate decline below the national rate.

Wallets trumped all in the race, exit polls suggested, and Haley knew she could run on jobs, even as the state’s jobless rate started climbing again as election day drew near.

A major slap on the back

Haley was a back-bench state representative from Lexington with little legislative track record when she was the surprise winner of the 2010 GOP primary for governor.

The S.C. Chamber of Commerce backed Sheheen, nephew of a former S.C. House speaker, in the Democratic primary and one of Haley’s GOP opponents, from the Upstate, in the Republican primary. In the general election, the group did not shift its endorsement to the lesser-known Haley, instead sticking with Sheheen.

Ironically, that rejection — by the state’s main business group — added to Haley’s credibility with some 2010 voters, including Tea Party members who were seeking an outsider to take over the Governor’s Mansion.

In November 2010, Haley narrowly defeated the chamber-endorsed Sheheen. She immediately set out to prove herself a business-friendly governor. She backed limits on lawsuit damages, fought for tax and regulation cuts, and worked to win new jobs and businesses.

Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, invited Haley to speak at its supplier meetings. She brought in major new industrial recruits, including tire makers Continental and Giti, which promised more than 3,300 jobs combined.

This year, the Chamber of Commerce’s board reversed its previous Sheheen endorsement and handed it to Haley. The endorsement helped. In her re-election romp, Haley won tens of thousands of additional votes in the business-centric Upstate compared to 2010.

It probably did not hurt that the last three state chamber chairmen had ties to Haley.

Haley appointed BB&T bank executive Mike Brenan to the state Board of Education, and he appeared in one of her ads. AT&T state president Pamela Lackey sits on the board of Haley’s charitable foundation. Orangeburg business executive MikeeJohnson was Haley’s high school classmate.

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