CHARLESTON, South Carolina -- South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley grabbed the nation’s attention for the second time in a year with her surprising spin on the normally sleepy State of the Union response Tuesday.
Her speech, which by her own account was a critique of GOP front-runner Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric and hardline immigration positions, earned adulation from Trump’s critics on the right and disdain from his supporters in talk radio circles. It also stoked a new round of vice presidential speculation.
South Carolina politicos say both Haley’s plea for civility and her willingness to throw down the gauntlet against a powerful Republican were not out of line with the way she’s governed the state.
"She has never been afraid to say what she's thinking.''
“I wasn’t surprised,” Alissa Warters, a political science professor at Francis Marion University, told MSNBC. “She has never been afraid to say what she's thinking, she's never been afraid to challenge her own party.”
But observers added that her leadership approach and political base have shifted over the years, making her hard to pin down.
Haley first emerged as a state legislator in the tea party wave of 2010, when she won an ugly GOP primary race for governor that was packed with more experienced politicians. In one of the lowest moments, a Republican state legislator called her a “raghead” on a talk show. She also fended off accusations of infidelity from a local blogger and Republican lobbyists, claims that she forcefully denied.
At the time Haley was considered an anti-establishment insurgent. One of the biggest factors in her rise in the polls was a key endorsement from Sarah Palin, now one of Trump’s most prominent cheerleaders within the GOP.
“She branded herself as a tea party candidate,” Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright told MSNBC. “This modern day Nikki Haley tone of kumbaya and bringing people together and toning down the noise – she was the noise when she first ran for governor”
Haley’s first term proved combative as she clashed with the traditionally white and male “good ol’ boys” network that dominated state politics.
“I knew I had a lot to prove,” she told The State in 2014, reflecting on her first term. “I didn’t blame anybody for it. I actually understood in a strange way. I was female. I was Indian. I was young. I took it as more of ... I have to prove to them that they made the right decision.”
She fought with legislative leaders over her plan to require roll call votes on spending items. At the same time, tea party leaders accused her of backing away from their more ambitious budget hacking priorities in favor of courting business groups. Her administration faced unexpected challenges, including a major data breach at the state’s tax collection agency. Her approval ratings withered mainly due to weakening GOP support and her national buzz faded with the polls.
After winning re-election in another Republican wave in 2014, though, observers say Haley changed. The turning point was the shooting at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, in which a white gunman killed nine black parishioners. As she recalled in her State of the Union response, she responded by reaching out to politicians from both parties as well as African-American leaders – who she had battled over a voter ID law -- to craft a unified response on a controversial issue: The Confederate flag’s presence on state grounds.
The issue was considered a third rail in state politics for years, but Haley earned widespread praise for her work to reach a consensus on its removal rather than seek confrontation. Still, a vocal group of flag defenders have protested the decision, sometimes even carrying racist signs outside her events.
“She’s certainly matured in the office, when she went in it was a little ‘us vs. them,’” Republican strategist Chip Felkel told MSNBC. “Particularly in the last year, bringing people together on the flag and then the way we’ve responded to flooding, I think she’s at a high point.”
Seawright, the Democratic strategist, says he’s seen a change in her approach as well. He said her new education spending plan, which she unveiled this week, seemed to reflect more input from both parties than previous efforts.
“It’s second-term syndrome: ‘I don’t have to worry about re-election so I can govern more toward the center,’” he said.
At the same time, some of her more contentious fights in recent months seemed to presage her conflict with Trump – especially when it comes to immigration and religion, which she cited as her main reason for challenging the billionaire in her speech.
Haley was a strong defender of resettling refugees in South Carolina, for example, despite concerns within her state party about security. But under pressure after the Paris attacks she joined other Republican governors in asking the State Department not to settle people fleeing the Syrian civil war in her state without more assurances about their vetting process.
Still, she made clear she did not like where the debate was heading. When Trump called for a blanket ban on Muslim entry into the United States, Haley denounced him immediately as “an embarrassment to the Republican Party.”
It’s a difficult dance trying to govern a state where Trump has led polls for months while trying not to alienate anyone too much on either side of the GOP divide.
Maybe too difficult – one South Carolina Trump supporter pointed to her struggle with follow up questions about her speech as evidence she was feeling pressure from the right.
In remarks to CNN, Haley tried to downplay the idea she singled out Trump by pointing to her disagreements with multiple candidates – including on immigration.
"Marco Rubio believes in amnesty, which I don't,” she said. “There's lots of things."
Accusing Rubio of supporting “amnesty” was as loaded a move as it gets in a close GOP primary fought increasingly over immigration issues. By the end of the day, Haley had walked it back on Fox News, saying she meant she disagreed with his “Gang of Eight” bill, not his current position.
"It's been a long couple of days,” she said.
Trump, for his part, had a message for Haley on Wednesday: Nice political career you got there. Shame if something happened to it.
“She probably figures maybe it’s good for her,” he said of her State of the Union response on MSNBC. “Maybe it’s not good for her. Maybe it will turn out to be very bad for her, because people know where I stand and you know, you see the numbers.”