Thanks to Trump, 2 States Are Getting New Governors

As Gov. Nikki Haley heads off to work in the Trump administration, South Carolina could see some real political change.
by | January 19, 2017
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, left, and Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster after her final State of the State address. (AP/Sean Rayford)

Two states will soon have new governors as a result of appointments by President-elect Donald Trump. In one of those states, that could mean real political change.

Iowa's Terry Branstad, the longest-serving governor in the nation's history, will be leaving to serve as ambassador to China. His lieutenant governor, Kim Reynolds, is a close ally who's not expected to deviate from the pro-business, conservative course set by Branstad.

By contrast, the departure of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who will be ambassador to the United Nations, should shake things up in her home state. Her replacement, Henry McMaster, enjoys much better relations with the legislature.

"Because Haley is so disliked in the legislature, her proposals were torpedoed," said John Crangle, executive director of Common Cause South Carolina, a nonpartisan government watchdog group. "There's an expectation when McMaster comes in [that] some of the legislation that's been logjammed will roll through."

In a way, it's surprising that Haley got a top position in the Trump administration and not McMaster. McMaster was the first statewide official in the country to endorse Trump last year, while Haley was notably critical of the candidate.

Haley, however, has long been considered an important star in national GOP circles -- she gave the official Republican response to President Obama's final State of the Union address -- and she's popular with the voting public.

But maybe clearing the way to the governor's office was the biggest favor Trump could have done for a loyal supporter. After all, McMaster has had his eye on the job for decades. Prior to being elected lieutenant governor in 2014, McMaster served for two terms as the state attorney general. Before winning that office, he spent a decade as chair of the state GOP.

"You certainly can't think of a more experienced politician than Henry McMaster," said Dave Woodard, a Republican consultant who teaches at Clemson University.

While McMaster has collected a lifetime's worth of friends in the state's capital city of Columbia, Haley fashioned her career as an opponent to the old-guard power structure in the state. She attracted enemies in the legislature, even though it's controlled by her own party. She turned her Facebook account into a "wall of shame" for members who voted against her. She even advised a group of real estate agents to "take a good shower" after meeting with legislators.

Last year, Haley organized a super PAC that spent more than $1 million in an attempt to unseat her enemies in primaries. She failed to oust some of her biggest targets, who are now running the state Senate's two most important chambers as well as the chamber itself.

Haley angered legislators in June by issuing line-item vetoes of 51 earmarked spending projects worth a total of $41 million, which she derided as pork. She did sign an infrastructure package, which allows the state to borrow $2.2 billion over 10 years to fund projects. But she refused to consider any package that included new taxes, frustrating legislators. Haley herself said the resulting compromise wasn't "anything close to a victory."

"The legislature would override a lot of her vetoes," said Gibbs Knotts, who chairs the political science department at the College of Charleston. "It always seemed strange for a Republican governor to veto a Republican legislature on spending."

Haley likely would have had a frustrating last couple of years in office before being term-limited out in 2018. Instead, McMaster -- also a conservative -- is expected to be more flexible in making deals with legislators to find more funding for roads and schools.

"This is an opportunity for McMaster to establish himself as a governor who can get something done, without acrimony," said Woodard. "We've been governed by the past two governors basically by veto, even though they're in the same party as the legislature."

In Iowa, Reynolds will represent less of a break from Branstad. In fact, observers in the state are hard-pressed to come up with any ways in which she'll change policy directions or even differ from her boss in terms of setting priorities.

Kim Reynolds (David Kidd)

Reynolds served as a county treasurer before being elected to the state Senate in 2008. Just two years later, Branstad chose her as his running mate for his successful comeback bid as governor in 2010. He's made no secret that his intention for years has been to groom her as his successor.

"She is in on all the decision-making," Branstad told Iowa Public Television in 2014. "She is next in line to be governor. I want to make sure that she is well-prepared."

Branstad has given Reynolds -- a college dropout who completed her degree in December -- considerable responsibilities in areas such as economic development and promotion of STEM education.

For the most part, though, Reynolds is known as Branstad's virtual shadow, sitting with him in meetings and standing next to him on countless public platforms.

"She was plucked out of political obscurity by Terry Branstad," said Dennis Goldford, who chairs the political science department at Drake University. "Not many of us really know who she is, in terms of an agenda or a political profile."

Both Branstad and Haley are expected to be confirmed, but there's no telling what the timing will be. Haley, however, had her hearing before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday.

Both Reynolds and McMaster were likely to run for governor in 2018. Now they can enjoy the big advantage of running as incumbents.