Woman on the Verge
Campo-Flores, Arian, Newsweek
Byline: Arian Campo-Flores
Nikki Haley is earthy, attractive, articulate--and the GOP's newest star in a fast-changing South.
Last Tuesday, the upper crust of South Carolina's Republican establishment gathered at the tony Spartanburg home of Karen Floyd, the state party chair. They'd come for a $1,000-per-couple GOP fundraiser, headlined by visiting Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota. Among the luminaries were Roger Milliken, a billionaire textile magnate who has donated millions to the party, and Robert Chapman, a retired federal appellate judge appointed by Ronald Reagan. There were lawmakers, state officials, business tycoons, and a one-star general. The guests mingled and chitchatted, sipping gin and tonics and nibbling on little quiches. It was the sort of scene you'd expect in this bastion of Southern conservatism: genteel, elderly, and above all, very, very white.
Until, that is, the party's freshly anointed gubernatorial nominee arrived: Nikki Haley, 38 years old and Indian-American, wearing a snug, saffron-colored suit and stilettos you could impale a small animal with. Only a few months ago, she was an obscure state representative. Then former Alaska governor Sarah Palin endorsed her, the Tea Party movement embraced her, and she proceeded to dispatch a U.S. congressman, the lieutenant governor, and the attorney general in the Republican primary and runoff. Now she's the hottest thing in South Carolina politics. And if she wins in November, becoming the state's first female and first nonwhite governor, she'll likely rocket to national prominence and secure a spot in the GOP firmament.
Comparisons to Palin are inevitable. Haley is attractive and earthy, with a gleaming smile and a steely resolve. While the former Alaska governor often seems tongue-tied and uninformed, Haley comes across as sharp and articulate. She's remarkably poised for someone fairly new to politics. And she's a natural at the art of schmoozing. At the Spartanburg fundraiser, she mugged for pictures with new fans, locked eyes intently on those she met, and listened solicitously to the party poohbahs. "I want you to feel good about your governor," she said to one guest after another, managing to make it sound heartfelt each time. They ate it up. "She brings something new to our party," said Henry McMaster, the attorney general who lost to her in the primary and later endorsed her, in his introductory remarks. "We have a new leader for the conservative movement in this country, right here in South Carolina."
Eager to shed their image as the party of old white men, national Republicans are salivating. "The GOP has long struggled with expanding the base of our party," says Nick Ayers, executive director of the Republican Governors Association (RGA). Haley offers "a big chance for us to bring ethnic minorities into the party." In Haley, the GOP has found a candidate who not only has consistently espoused conservative dogma--small government, lower taxes, less regulation--but one who appeals to multihued, 21st-century America. When Ayers met her, he immediately grasped her potential. "She had core principles she was unwavering on," he says. "I thought it would be icing on the cake that she had darker skin and was Indian-American."
So does this herald a new era of diversity in the GOP? Only to an extent, says Scott Huffmon, a political-science professor at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C. "What [Haley's rise] says about the Republican Party is that they are open to minorities and women," he says. While that's significant, it doesn't mean there's a corresponding urge to take up what are typically considered minority issues--endemic poverty, for instance, or employment discrimination. If Haley "had entered the race talking about issues that minorities face, she would not have gotten into the next round," Huffmon argues.
Haley shies away from talk of breaking racial and gender barriers. …