Nikki Haley is back.
Despite being elected with great fanfare in 2010, the Republican governor of South Carolina had for years all but disappeared from the national political conversation. That all changed very fast this week, when Haley called for the Confederate flag outside her state capitol to be taken down in the aftermath of a racially charged mass shooting that left nine African-American parishioners dead at a historically black church in her state.
The picture was impressive – and historic. Here was a female minority governor in a historically conservative state, flanked by Republicans and Democrats, black and white, many of whom had once argued that there was no need to take down the flag. Haley swiftly and gracefully did what no one had been able to do in 50 years: Declare the flag a divisive symbol and put pressure on South Carolina’s conservative lawmakers to take it down. Lawmakers Tuesday voted to take up the issue, and may well vote to remove the flag in mere weeks.
Plenty of skeptics argue that it shouldn’t have taken a mass shooting for Haley to do the right thing. Others say Haley was merely doing damage control, providing cover to an emerging GOP presidential field that largely shied away from making similar calls after the massacre. But nonetheless, Haley’s strong stand seems like a clear win for her – and potentially elevates the governor’s as a national figure and may have placed her on the short list as a GOP vice presidential nominee in 2016.
“I think it ups her VP stock. There’s no question about it,” said Republican strategist and former John McCain campaign adviser Ford O’Connell. “She started as a bright star but somewhere in the line got lost in the mix. This situation puts her back at the top.”
Haley’s name was briefly floated in the 2012 presidential cycle. And while she won re-election in 2014, she’s been dogged by problems throughout her tenure including ethics controversies, accusations of illegal lobbying, and her handling of a giant data breach at the state’s Department of Revenue. She’s also been plagued by a tumultuous relationship with her own party in the state Legislature. And in the process, she got lost in the 2016 shuffle.
On paper, the 43-year-old would be an appealing vice presidential pick for a party largely viewed as white and male. Haley’s a woman. She’s a minority—one of just two sitting Indian–American governors, the other being Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, who will announce a presidential run this week.
Haley’s been elected twice. And she hails from a crucial, early voting state in the primary process.
Haley was elected as the Palmetto’ State’s first female governor at the age of 38 in 2010— a three-term state House member who painted herself as a political outsider, a once-little known politician who eventually earned an endorsement from Sarah Palin and the tea party.
She won a bruising primary race, fighting allegations of extramarital affairs, questions about her religion and her finances. But she eventually went on to win against Democratic opponent Vincent Sheheen in the general election by a 51% to 47% margin.
Haley’s first term was rocky. In 2011, she made a trip to Europe in the hopes of bringing new employers to South Carolina, which had struggled through a deep recession. The trip cost taxpayers more than $127,000 – including stays at five-star hotels and lavish parties. It didn’t help when Haley called the journalist who wrote about the trip a “little girl.” (The governor later apologized.)
There was the 2012 massive hacking scandal of a state computer system, which resulted in the personal data of nearly four million individuals and 7000,000 businesses being exposed. Critics contended Haley was too slow to respond, initially deflecting blame but eventually admitting state officials could have done more to prevent the attack.
Last year, Haley said she would pay a $3,500 fine by a state ethics commission for not disclosing the addresses of eight campaign donors. She was cleared of another ethics violation in 2012.
The South Carolina economy under Haley has improved. Unemployment has dropped, and her job approval numbers have risen. Her endorsement of Mitt Romney in 2012 and was seen as a bold move, since Romney was perceived as more moderate than her state’s conservative GOP primary voters. (Newt Gingrich went on to win the primary there.) She won re-election easily in 2014.
During that 2014 race, Haley defended the Confederate flag’s presence on Capitol grounds, even suggesting it wasn’t an issue because “not a single CEO” complained about it.
Haley has since changed her tune.
By removing a symbol that divides us, we can move forward as a state in harmony and we can honor the nine blessed souls who are in heaven,” she argued on Monday. Haley managed to strike a balance with those who believe the “flag stands for traditions that are noble,” saying it would be respected on private property. But she acknowledged, “for many others in South Carolina, the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past” and should not be at the capitol.
David Woodard, a Republican consultant in the state who is also a political science professor at Clemson University, called the speech her “best moment as governor” and said it would likely help her national prospects. Woodard, a past critic of Haley, particularly on issues of transparency, pointed to protests over the unarmed shooting deaths of black men in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, saying “For things to be different here and for her to have gotten credit is a tremendous political plus for her….She seized her moment.”
It’s a theme Haley touched on during her remarks, making note of the police shooting death of unarmed black South Carolina man Walter Scott. “We responded by talking to each other, by putting ourselves in other people’s shoes and by finding common ground in the name of moving our state forward,” said Haley, lauding the legislature for passing the first body-camera bill in the country.
Haley would still be judged by her past controversies as governor. And strict conservatives in her party may not appreciate her activism around the flag – a symbol still embraced by many in the South. A Winthrop University poll from last year showed that while 60% of African-Americans held negative views of the emblem, only 26% of whites felt the same way. More than 73% of white said they wanted the flag to stay put, while 61% of African-Americans wanted it gone.
Since South Carolina is already a safe GOP state in the general election, Haley’s presence on a GOP ticket wouldn’t bring much swing state advantage. “South Carolina is really relevant in the primary season but less so in the general election,” said Alissa Warters, a political science professor at Francis Marion University.
But Haley has good standing with declared and likely Republican candidates, hosting many of them during campaign visits through the important state. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush campaigned for Haley during her re-election bid. So did New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who attended her inaugural ceremony. Haley also stumped for Gov. Scott Walker during his recall election in 2011. Another GOP hopeful, Sen. Lindsey Graham, hails from the same state.
“I think any Republican candidate is going to look at her,” said Warters. “Does what happened this week elevate her status? Yes, sure. But we’ve still got another year to go.”