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.
Samhita Mukhopadhyay of Feministing.com noted that Asian-Americans have often been deemed a "model minority," used by conservatives as "a measuring stick to put other ethnic minorities down." Haley uses her own immigrant background to make a similar point. She supports an anti-immigrant bill similar to Arizona’s SB 1070, suggesting that if her parents could come here legally, why can’t others? "My parents are immigrants, they came here legally, they put in the time, they put in the money, they did what they were supposed to. It makes them mad when they see illegal immigrants come into this state," she says in a video on her campaign YouTube page.
Indeed, while Haley is frequently compared to Palin, New York magazine asked instead if she might be the Republican party’s Barack Obama. Like Obama, Haley has seen her full name used as a weapon against her on the campaign trail—Nikki is her middle name, Haley her husband’s last name. It’s worth considering if Nimrata Randhawa would be able to win by double digits over white men with the same ease as Nikki Haley. But Dr. Inderpal Grewal, a professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Yale, notes that the name change is not rare for Sikh immigrants in the United States, nor are conservative values or military service (Haley’s brother is in the military, her husband in the Reserves). She notes instead, "Most controversial within the Indian-American community is the conversion" Haley has undergone to Christianity.
Grewal points out that this personal narrative suits another familiar conservative storyline—"the born-again discourse." As the campaign progressed, she and others have noted, Haley’s campaign website began to emphasize her Christianity—it now declares: "My faith in Christ has a profound impact on my daily life and I look to Him for guidance with every decision I make." For political success, Grewal notes, religion is a requirement, especially in South Carolina, where the state Constitution still says that "No person shall be eligible to the office of Governor who denies the existence of the Supreme Being." And Haley’s under heavy pressure to prove her Christianity because her party, particularly the Tea Party faction, has cast aspersions on Obama’s Christianity as a weapon to wound him.
Haley’s ethnicity and gender thus far don’t seem to have been a handicap with Republican voters. Ed Kilgore notes: "Self-conscious movement conservatives, so long as you’re willing to meet their ideological test, absolutely love diversity." Haley hits all the right talking points, echoing Mark Sanford’s opposition to the stimulus bill and positioning herself to the right of her white, male rivals. Kilgore points out, too, that Haley appeals to suburban transplants to the South. "They’re right-wing but they really hate the good ol’ boys," he says, and see Haley as a step toward "ridding Southern conservatism of the old taint of the Dixiecrats," the overt racism of politicians like Jake Knotts.
But Haley’s lead in the polls, commanding after the primaries, has been shrinking. The Democrats are fielding an unusually strong candidate this year in Vincent Sheheen, who has the endorsement of the state Chamber of Commerce. "We worried about her ability to get along with the legislature," Otis Rawl, the chamber’s chief executive officer, told Bloomberg News. "We wanted to bring the debate away from the Tea Party and back to the middle." A Rasmussen poll on October 21 saw Haley at 47 percent to Sheheen’s 38 percent—with 11 percent of voters still undecided.
The "Mama Grizzly" narrative suggests that women will support conservative women, but Haley’s base of support is still solidly white and male. She and Sheheen poll evenly among women—in a state where McCain and Palin actually outperformed Obama with women in 2008. The African-American voters key to Obama’s primary win in the state tend to vote nine out of ten for Democrats, but the question this time around is turnout: without Obama on the ballot, will voters come out for Sheheen?
Sheheen has energetic support among South Carolina Democrats, who have had quite enough of the national media telling them who their next governor will be. Ask about Nikki Haley, and you get an angry, impassioned response. Terry Bergeron, a media professional from Hilton Head Island, told me, "Why is Nikki Haley the story? She was the fourth-place candidate plucked out of obscurity by Sarah Palin, a failed vice presidential candidate who had never even been to South Carolina prior to the endorsement." She continued, "Even my own so-called ‘liberal media,’ like MSNBC and now The Nation, have let me down by perpetuating the legend."
As the election nears and poll numbers tighten, questions linger. Is South Carolina—a state with no women in statewide office—ready for a woman governor with immigrant parents? If she loses, will her loss be blamed on sexism and racism rather than her support for slash-and-burn politics that have kept South Carolina’s unemployment numbers high and education rankings at the bottom of the country? It would be hard to say, after this campaign season, that Haley’s race and gender have nothing to do with results. But it’s also been a year of sweeping out those in power, and if she loses, it’s worth noting that voters might be rejecting her not because of difference but because she’s still more of the same.