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June 10, 2014 1:33 PM Nikki Haley Keeps Her Head Down

By Ed Kilgore

Until I read McKay Coppins’ highly sympathetic story about the political condition of SC Gov. Nikki Haley, it hadn’t occurred to me to reflect on the fact that she’s running unopposed in today’s GOP primary. That’s something of an accomplishment, since Haley would (if she were more prone to public candor) be the first to admit she has as many enemies in her own party as in the opposition. She does, however, face a potentially difficult rematch with Democrat Vincent Sheheen, who ran unexpectedly well against Haley in 2010. And as Coppins explains, Haley’s had to put her manifest national political ambitions on the back burner while focusing on consolidating her position back home.

Those national ambitions were fed, of course, by the fact that Haley is sort of the perfect diversity trophy for the national GOP, which makes her an ideal candidate for Veep, if not the top spot: an Indian-American woman with a pleasing appearance, who’s a convert to Protestant Christianity and a self-defined hard-core movement conservative. In that superficial respect, she’s remarkably similar to her Louisiana counterpart, Bobby Jindal (it’s a sign of the political times in the South that Indian-American Republicans outnumber Democrats two-to-one as governors of the former Confederate States). But they are actually as different as night and day. While Jindal’s been told he’s a genius most of his life, and has some actual wonky accomplishments, Haley doesn’t seem much more intellectual than her leading 2010 sponsor Sarah Palin. More to the point, unlike Haley, Bobby’s doing everything imaginable to get himself out of his state and in front of red-meat-craving conservative audiences. But then he’s running for president, and as Coppins suggests, Haley’s perpetually stuck on the short list to become somebody’s running-mate.

But even that could be a reach, because of Haley’s questionable vettability. Coppins views Haley as an innocent victim of South Carolina’s nasty political culture:

She hasn’t been at the center of a major scandal; she didn’t close a bridge. But she has been sucked back into the cesspool of South Carolina’s notoriously toxic politics — forced to spend much of her first term fighting through controversies, real and manufactured, that dragged down her approval ratings and gave the fickle D.C. opinion-makers an excuse to move on. Now, as she enjoys a political comeback in her state, her national standing in the party to which she was once appointed heiress apparent is less certain than ever.

Experts may differ, of course, on how many of Haley’s “controversies” are real or manufactured. Totally aside from some locally famous screw-ups in state government, and some enduring questions about her finances, the national GOP would be inviting a Holy War with labor if they placed on the national ticket a governor who doesn’t think private-sector unions have a right to exist.

But what Coppins clearly has in mind as the major obstacle to her ascendance nationally is the twin allegations of Republican operatives in SC that she had extramarital affairs with them, which probably helped her in 2010 (nicely fitting into her message that she was the “true conservative reformer” in the race that the good-ol’-boy network of former Democrats and RINOs wanted to take down) but still won’t go away. Coppins thinks it’s symptomatic of the uniquely twisted culture of the Palmetto State that Haley’s first accuser (who characteristically endorsed her candidacy), libertarian blogger Will Folks, is politically alive and well:

In another state, an ex-aide who gleefully hurled unsubstantiated (and sometimes graphic) claims about sexual liaisons with the governor might have been excommunicated from the professional political class. Here, Folks is at the center of it, running an irreverent insider politics site that everybody in the state capital reads, even if nobody is willing to admit it. His continued political relevance is a constant source of frustration for Haley and her allies, and he could cause more headaches for her going forward.

That’s because even though Haley turned the infidelity allegations into a weapon in her favor in 2010 among voters, there appear to be a significant number of pols and journalists in South Carolina who either believe them or won’t rule them out as fabrications. And as a conservative Republican, she probably benefits less from anger at the obvious double standard on matters sexual (nobody’s dogging Sen. David Vitter with sexual rumors, though that may be because he’s admitted adultery with prostitutes) than would be the case if she were a Democrat.

And thus, she labors away at her job, with mixed results, unable or unwilling to completely remove that faint but discernable scarlet letter that may terrify vice presidential vetters. If she survives November, she’ll be dutifully placed on the 2016 short lists for the national ticket. But you get the sense that she has about as much chance of becoming Veep as Bobby Jindal has of becoming president. My guess is that both of them will wind up in some future GOP president’s Cabinet, or in the worst case, on the short list for Ambassador in New Delhi.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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