Why you should care
Because Haley could one day be a door down from the Oval Office.
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Nikki Haley adjusted the bright pallu over her head, pressed her hands to her heart, namaste-style — and did something dangerous for a woman in politics: She started to cry. “It’s a very special day,” she said, choking up. Haley, who is of Indian heritage, is the first female governor of South Carolina; the scene took place last November, when she was visiting the Sikh Golden Temple of Amritsar — perhaps not what you’d expect from someone who’s made her name as a Republican governor and a Christian convert.
The 43-year-old, born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa, turned to Christianity when she married her husband, Michael, in 1996. The brown-to-Christian narrative has taken hold in part because of Haley’s parallel in Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal (born “Piyush” and Hindu). But Haley is made of contradictions. The second-termer attends both Methodist and Sikh services and was praised this summer for removing the Confederate flag after the Charleston shootings — though just last year, she refused to take down that same flag. (Haley herself didn’t comment, but her deputy chief of staff Rob Godfrey tells OZY “she couldn’t look her son or daughter in the face and justify that flag flying at the statehouse” anymore.) The daughter of immigrants, she’s tough on immigration and once listed herself as “white” on a 2001 voter registration card. When constituents questioned her faith, she switched from referencing God to, specifically, Jesus Christ.
But these seeming tensions have made her a compelling political character. After only four years in office, Haley’s name is being floated as a potential VP candidate in 2016. And her rapid ascent from humble state legislator to twice-elected governor is yet more proof of a Republican identity in flux. “She has an amazing narrative and just as much experience” as other possible VP contenders like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, George Washington University political scientist Lara Brown says. “Quite frankly,” she adds, “I think Haley should have gotten in the presidential race.” But perhaps by not entering the crowded field, she’s earning more respect and waiting to cash in on the inevitable “woman question” when the GOP has to face down Hillary. Were she offered a spot on the GOP ticket, Haley said at a September appearance at the National Press Club in Washington, “Of course, I would sit down and talk.”
Haley has cemented her reputation as a financial pragmatist by slicing away at taxes as ruthlessly as a box cutter at a post office — all while raking in jobs by lavishing tax breaks and economic incentives on companies that relocate to South Carolina. She faced off with Georgia (and won) while wooing a new Volvo plant and poached two major companies from nearby Charlotte, North Carolina. She’s earned her Tea Party credentials by opposing Medicaid expansion under Obamacare and signing a law that cut taxes on small businesses.
But governing the Palmetto State, with its meager nine electoral votes and clear partisan lean (about 54 percent of voters swung Republican during the last two presidential elections), does not necessarily make a national candidate, and watchers say she has lacked a certain luster. She signed an Arizona-style crackdown on immigration only to see it softened after a lawsuit from advocacy groups. Plus, her campaign promise to improve government transparency floundered after she herself was accused of dodgy tax returns and failing to report campaign contributions, among other things. She might not survive the scrutiny of a more thorough vetting process, says Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz. “She got some nice publicity after the shootings, but boy, there are some things lurking.” Like two allegations of extramarital affairs (one from a political blogger, another from a consultant to one of her rivals, during a downright dirty 2010 South Carolina primary that also featured an opponent calling her a “raghead”). Haley, for her part, denied the accusations and deftly wove the rhetoric into her narrative of an underdog being bullied by establishment forces. (“When you challenge the entrenched status quo, as the governor has, you make a lot of people mad, and they do whatever they can to try to stop you,” Godfrey tells OZY.)
That’s trademark Nikki vs. Goliath, touched upon often in her folksy memoir, Can’t Is Not an Option. She described her birthplace, Bamberg, as a community “that sprang up around” a water tank, and in small-town South Carolina, her differences showed. She was asked to play Pocahontas in the kindergarten Thanksgiving play because she was “Indian.” Her adult life was fairly average: economics degree from Clemson University, job with her mother’s upscale clothing firm and then president of two chambers of commerce and the National Association of Women Business Owners.
But much as she might emphasize the latter small-town story over her complex identity, it’s exactly her in-betweenness, her experience of being shuffled between black and white and other, that may be her greatest weapon. “She has a chance to speak to issues of race, issues of color, issues of gender in a way that no other Republican candidate can,” said Bruce Haynes, president of the bipartisan political consulting firm Purple Strategies, to Politico.
Which is a description that sounds less like Jindal and more like the current president of the United States.