According to legend, Sarah Palin saw a video of South Carolina State Rep. Nikki Haley, 38, campaigning at a Tea Party rally in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and liked what she saw. After Palin endorsed her, Haley’s star began to rise. She’d been trailing other Republican contenders for weeks, but suddenly she shot in the polls, and the national media started taking notice of the telegenic Indian-American legislator representing Lexington, South Carolina.
But her path to the nomination wasn’t exactly smooth. State Senator Jake Knotts Jr. told an Internet talk show, "We already got one raghead in the White House. We don’t need another in the governor’s mansion." And political blogger Will Folks and Larry Marchant, a campaign consultant for Lieutenant Governor André Bauer at the time, both claimed that they had had extramarital dalliances with Haley. But unlike her onetime mentor Mark Sanford, the current South Carolina Governor, who faced, and admitted to, charges of infidelity, Haley steadfastly denied the accusations, deftly turning them around on her opponents in debates. Veteran South Carolina political editor Ed Kilgore notes that the mudslinging "made the rest of the campaign about her. It totally destroyed her opponents’ campaign."
Haley had a ten-point lead in the polls when the accusations hit. Whether in spite of the lingering memories of Sanford’s teary-eyed confession, or perhaps because of the support of Sanford’s estranged wife, Jenny, she was twenty points over her nearest rival in the first round of primary voting, and won the runoff by thirty.
Conservative women are the subject du jour, and mainstream media outlets (including Newsweek, which put Haley on its cover) have been taking Palin’s bait, reporting as though Haley and the rest of the "Mama Grizzlies" represent something new, rather than acknowledging the extent to which what they stand for, politically, is more of the same.
After all, underneath the surface, Haley is no kinder, gentler Republican. Among the bills she’s co-sponsored this legislative session are an anti-union bill and one that would make it more difficult for women to obtain an abortion. She quotes Barry Goldwater—yes, that Barry Goldwater—on the campaign trail.
Yet while Haley’s political position may fit squarely into the conservative Republican camp, the fact that she’s Indian-American allows South Carolina conservatives and the Tea Party crowd to purport racial diversity in their ranks.
So far, Haley has used her race and gender as a way to position herself as a Republican party outsider—a good place to be in a year when the party insiders have been nothing but a disgrace. A story she likes to tell, of being disqualified from a beauty pageant as a child because she could be neither the black queen or white queen, emphasizes that’s she’s neither (and, of course, draws attention her looks, without which it seems hard for Republican women politicians to gain prominence). Subtly implied by this story is the suggestion that both blacks and whites received her with the same degree of animosity—that perhaps black South Carolinians are just as racist as whites are, a common refrain in the Tea Party victim storyline, though one not borne out by Haley’s own background.
Haley comes from Bamberg, a town about 60 percent black, in the heart of what Kevin Alexander Gray, author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics, calls South Carolina’s black belt. He notes that the black community is often more welcoming to immigrants than white Americans are. Voorhees College, where Haley’s father taught for years, is a historically black college. But black voters in South Carolina are solidly Democratic, and Haley’s campaign has made no attempt to reach out to change that.