SOTU Pushes Nikki Haley's Spotty Record Into the Spotlight

The South Carolina governor has been selected to give the GOP's response to the State of the Union. Despite her popularity, she struggles to lead her own state.
by | January 12, 2016
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (AP/Chase Stevens)

Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina, was selected to give the official Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union address this year -- the latest and perhaps clearest indication of the high regard in which she's held by the national GOP.

But despite her popularity, she has frequently feuded with her fellow Republicans in the state and lacks a long record of accomplishments.

It's clear why national Republicans have chosen to put Haley in the spotlight. She's a conservative in an early presidential primary state and, as a 43-year-old woman of Indian ancestry, she offers a counter to the GOP's primarily white and rapidly aging demographic. Last week, National Journal ran an article headlined, "Why Republicans Want Nikki Haley to Be the VP."

Under her lead, though, past sessions in South Carolina have been plagued with vetoes and veto overrides, and it's not yet clear that she's any more likely to get her way in prominent policy fights this year.

"I don't think she's gaining that much ground in Columbia," said Dave Woodard, a Republican consultant and pollster who teaches at Clemson University. "She doesn't have a guiding philosophy that she can communicate behind what she does."

Haley won re-election easily in 2014, prevailing by a 15 percentage point margin. Since then, she has faced one crisis after another. Last year, she was widely lauded for her handling of extensive flooding as well as the mass shooting at an African-American church in Charleston. After the shooting, she convinced legislators to remove the Confederate flag from the Capitol grounds -- putting to rest an issue that had divided South Carolina for decades.

"She's certainly been highly praised for how she handled all the difficulties the state faced in 2015," said Chip Felkel, a GOP consultant. "She's as popular as she's ever been."

Haley can also point to big economic projects that her administration helped to foster. Last fall, for instance, Volvo broke ground on a $500 million plant, which is the Swedish carmaker's first facility in North America. The port of Charleston is thriving, and South Carolina has become the nation's leading tire manufacturer, with billions in investments from the likes of Michelin and Bridgestone.

But hampering any wider sense of achievemement are her rocky relations with lawmakers.

Even though Haley started in the legislature herself and her party has complete control over both chambers, she's never picked up many friends in the body. In fact, Haley is in the habit of calling out legislators she doesn't like on Facebook or other social media platforms. Last year, she turned her personal website into a "wall of shame," highlighting how legislators from both parties voted on key bills like legislative pay raises and an ethics package.

"She kind of came in bucking the establishment," said Gibbs Knotts, who chairs the College of Charleston political science department. "She still does that, to some extent."

South Carolina's budget picture is looking bright, with revenues coming in more than a billion dollars ahead of estimates. That should do a lot to smooth relations this year between the branches. But they still can't seem to see eye to eye on issues like raising the gas tax to pay for roads.

Haley opposes raising the gas tax unless it's offset by a cut to income taxes or other relief. She complains that legislators don't take a hard enough line on taxes and spending, but the legislature last year managed to override most of her 87 vetoes of items in the budget.

A poll conducted in November by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm based in North Carolina, found that Haley is "one of the most popular governors in the country," with 56 percent of those surveyed approving of her job performance, compared with 28 percent who disapprove.

Haley's stock is clearly trading high right now, but whether that will help her score more policy wins in the year ahead remains a big question.

"The legislature is going to know that she has support from the people," said Knotts, "and they might want to take what she's saying a little more seriously."