In Backing Romney, Haley Seen As Political Enigma

Jan 20, 2012
Originally published on January 20, 2012 6:08 pm

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, one of the Tea Party's early superstars, has seen her approval ratings fall, and some of her core supporters are baffled by her endorsement of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Haley won election in 2010 as a true fiscal conservative, capturing the endorsement of Sarah Palin, who said Haley was willing to challenge the good old boys of the state's politics.

"Maybe they don't like her too much, but it's because she stands up for what is right," said Palin, the former Alaska governor, when she endorsed Haley. "She has that stiff spine, and she's doing it for you, South Carolina."

Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, addressed a Tea Party convention in South Carolina earlier this week, ahead of the state's first-in-the-South presidential primary on Saturday. She said her biggest achievements as governor have been tort reform, Medicaid reform and a law requiring legislators to cast many votes on the record. But perhaps the biggest draw for this conservative audience is her reputation as a fighter.

"If you just judge me on this past year, judge me on my lawsuits. Because I've been sued by unions, I've been sued by the ACLU, the Department of Justice — and Jesse Jackson was talking smack last week, so it's really a good track record," she said.

Haley thrust herself into the national spotlight last year with a battle over an effort by the National Labor Relations Board to punish Boeing for its decision to build a new plant in South Carolina. The state also is fighting with the federal government over a new immigration law and a new voter ID measure. Both have been blocked.

"What they don't know is you don't mess with us in South Carolina," Haley said earlier this week.

The governor talks like she is at war with the federal government.

"We're going to fight," she says, "and as much as President Obama has decided to continue with his assaults on South Carolina, we're going to continue to fight back."

Fighter Or Establishment Figure?

But Haley isn't getting the kind of strong support she did when she was elected, and Tea Party supporters couldn't have been more shocked with her choice to back Romney, a decision she announced on Fox News last month.

"What I want is someone who is not part of the chaos that is Washington. What I wanted was someone who knew what it was like to turn broken companies around," Haley said.

Even before the endorsement, Haley's approval ratings had been dropping. A recent Winthrop University poll shows just 35 percent of South Carolina voters approve of the job she's doing.

Haley dismissed the poll, but she can't quiet critics of her endorsement.

"It's disappointing to a lot of people in this state," says Talbert Black, a libertarian who worked for Haley's gubernatorial campaign but now doesn't speak to her. "She could have picked anybody, and at least had some of her base say, 'Yeah, that was a good pick.' Except Romney. I haven't heard anybody say that was a great pick for her."

Black says he is upset that Haley hasn't pushed through the budget reform and school choice bills she promised. And he's angry that Haley supported the deepening of the Savannah Harbor in neighboring Georgia. It's a decision that many say hurts the Port of Charleston in her own state.

Haley, who came to office fighting the establishment, seems to have joined it, Black says.

"She didn't do what she said she was going to do, and I think the folks who helped get her to where she is, she's not going to have their support if she runs again, which I assume she will," Black says.

During her first year in office, Haley has experienced a constant stream of controversies that have helped to diminish her support, says Mark Tompkins, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina.

"She finishes one controversy, and then a few weeks later there's another one, and you have to think that affects public support," he says.

In Haley's Corner

In Columbia, S.C., Allen Olson, a carpenter and the former head of the Columbia Tea Party, says he still strongly supports the governor.

"She knows a lot of positions she takes are controversial, but she takes 'em anyways because she's doing what's in the best interest of South Carolina, I believe," says Olson.

Olson is not a Romney fan — he's campaigning for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. But Olson says Haley backed Romney because the former Massachusetts governor supported her campaign in 2010.

"As long as she doesn't try to tie it to the Tea Party, I have absolutely no problem with her doing what she did," he says. "I know there are some people that have misgivings about that, and as of right now, I'm still 100 percent in Nikki Haley's corner."

It's not clear whether Haley's endorsement of Romney will hurt her future in South Carolina — or help Romney in Saturday's primary, where polls show him neck and neck with Gingrich.

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South Carolina's governor, Nikki Haley, is one of Mitt Romney's most visible supporters. That includes campaigning with him today. Haley was one of the superstars of the Tea Party. But after just one year in office, her approval ratings are slipping. And as NPR's Kathy Lohr reports, some of her core supporters are baffled by her endorsement of Romney.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: Haley campaigned in 2010 as a true fiscal conservative and won the endorsement of Sarah Palin, who said Haley is willing to challenge the good old boys.

SARAH PALIN: Well, maybe they don't like her too much, but it's because she stands up for what is right. She has that stiff spine, and she's doing it for you, South Carolina.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

LOHR: Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants addressed a Tea Party convention here this week. She said her biggest achievements have been tort reform, Medicaid reform, and a law requiring legislators to cast many votes on the record. But perhaps the biggest draw for this conservative audience is her reputation as a fighter.

GOVERNOR NIKKI HALEY: If you just judge me on this past year, judge me on my lawsuits because I've been sued by the unions...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HALEY: ...I've been sued by the ACLU, the Department of Justice, and Jesse Jackson was talking smack last week. So it's really a good track record, I will tell you that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)

LOHR: Haley thrust herself into the national spotlight with a battle over an effort by the National Labor Relations Board to punish Boeing for its decision to build a new plant here. South Carolina is also fighting with the federal government over a new immigration law and a new voter ID measure. Both have been blocked.

HALEY: What they don't know is you don't mess with us in South Carolina.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

LOHR: The governor talks like she is at war with the federal government.

HALEY: We're going to fight. And as much as President Obama has decided to continue with his assaults on South Carolina, we're going to continue to fight back.

LOHR: But Haley isn't getting the kind of strong support she did when she was elected. And Tea Party supporters couldn't have been more shocked with her choice to back Mitt Romney, a decision she announced on Fox News last month.

HALEY: What I want is someone who is not part of the chaos that is Washington. What I wanted was someone who knew what it was like to turn broken companies around.

LOHR: Even before the endorsement, the governor's approval ratings had been dropping. A recent Winthrop University poll shows just 35 percent of voters approve of the job she's doing. Haley dismissed the poll. But she can't quiet critics of her endorsement, like Talbert Black.

TALBERT BLACK: It's disappointing, disappointing to a lot of people in the state. She could have picked anybody and at least had some of her base say, yeah, that was a good pick. Except Romney. I haven't heard anybody say, you know, that was a great pick for her.

LOHR: Black is a libertarian who worked for Haley's gubernatorial campaign but now doesn't speak to her. He's upset that Haley hasn't pushed through the budget reform and school choice bills she promised. And he's angry that Haley supported the deepening of the Savannah Harbor in neighboring Georgia. It's a decision that many say hurts the Port of Charleston in her own state. Black says Haley, who came to office fighting the establishment seems to have joined it.

BLACK: She didn't do what she said she was going to do. And I think the folks who helped get her to where she is, she's not going to have their support, you know, if she runs again, which I assume she will.

MARK TOMPKINS: There is a continuing pattern of declining support for the governor over the last several months. And it's exacerbated by each one of these little controversies.

LOHR: That's Mark Tompkins, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina.

TOMPKINS: She finishes one controversy, and then a few weeks later there's another one. And you have to think that affects public support.

LOHR: In Columbia, out in his front yard, which is mostly dirt, Tea Party member Allen Olson teaches his 7-year-old son to hit a golf ball.

ALLEN OLSON: Hole in one. Good job.

LOHR: Olson is a carpenter and the former head of the Columbia Tea Party. He says he still strongly supports the governor.

OLSON: She knows that a lot of the times a lot of positions she takes are controversial, but she takes them anyways because she's doing what's in the best interest of South Carolina, I believe.

LOHR: Olson is not a Romney fan. He's campaigning for Newt Gingrich, but says Haley backed Romney because the former Massachusetts governor supported her campaign in 2010. Disappointing, yes, but...

OLSON: As long as she doesn't try to tie it to the Tea Party, I have absolutely no problem with her doing what she did. I know there are some people that have misgivings about that. And, as of right now, I'm still 100 percent in Nikki Haley's corner.

LOHR: It's not clear whether Nikki Haley's endorsement of Mitt Romney will hurt her future in this state or help Romney in Saturday's primary.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Columbia, South Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.