South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley is betting her future on Mitt Romney’s, exhausting the support that Tea Partyers once supplied her.
Haley endorsed Romney in the state’s Jan. 21 Republican presidential primary, a decision that might vault her into national office or stall her career in Columbia, scorned by those who elected her.
“It was like your best friend took up with a really bad boyfriend,” said Karen Martin, 54, an organizer for the Tea Party chapter in Spartanburg County.
Haley, 39, was elected in 2010 as a champion of the movement that pushed states’ rights and fiscal rectitude. The daughter of Indian immigrants, she was an adversary of the Legislature’s good-old-boy network and became the first woman to run the state that ranks 50th in female representation, said Karen Kedrowski, political science chairwoman for Rock Hill’s Winthrop University.
That such a politician would endorse Romney, whom Newt Gingrich has called someone trying to “pretend he’s a conservative,” was jaw-dropping, Haley’s Tea Party and Libertarian supporters said in interviews this week.
Martin, whose county went for Haley by 59 percent in 2010, got six calls from allies in an hour after Haley announced her decision last month, she said. “People were angry, disappointed, betrayed, hurt,” she said. She portrayed the rift as a family fight.
Romney led Gingrich 23 percent to 21 percent in the state, according to a poll conducted Jan. 11 for the Augusta Chronicle and Savannah Morning News that had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percent.
Haley said in a telephone interview that her choice of the former Massachusetts governor and private-equity executive at Bain Capital LLC aligned with her principles.
“I did not want a bureaucrat,” she said. “I did want a businessman. I didn’t want anybody who had anything to do with the chaos in Washington.”
Haley’s endorsement may lift her into national politics -- an ambition she has denied -- or make her a one-term governor, said Talbert Black, 42, a Libertarian who organized Tea Party support for Haley in her gubernatorial race.
A December poll by Winthrop University found Haley with only 52.5 percent approval in her own party, and at 34.6 percent total. A Clemson University poll the month before showed 64 percent approval among Republicans, a level that was “neither particularly good nor particularly bad,” said David Woodard, a professor of political science there.
Fervor was cooling even before Haley threw her support to Romney over Tea Party favorites such as Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, and she compromised too much with the Legislature she ran against in 2010, Black said.
“People were slowly coming to believe that maybe she didn’t mean it,” he said in an interview in a restaurant in Columbia, the state’s capital. “She’s gotten that insider disease that says you have to compromise to get along.”
An interview Marie Claire magazine published this month -- “Will Nikki Haley Be Our First Female President?” it was titled -- caused further heartburn, he said.
The Haley adminstration’s attempt to marshal Tea Party groups into an advisory panel last year showed him that the movement was being used, he said. Black said as much in an e- mail he circulated and hasn’t spoken to Haley since.
Supporters say Haley remains influential.
“There are Romney internal polls that show she’s popular.” said Rock Hill Republican state Representative Ralph Norman. “That’s why you see her being used by the Romney campaign in the first place.”
The endorsement made sense to him: Romney backed Haley’s gubernatorial campaign when she was still trailing the primary field, he said.
The governor said anger is exaggerated.
“I support the Tea Party,” she said. “And I support the fact that there are Republicans, Democrats and independents that all know what they want.”
Romney promised to keep the federal government from interfering with South Carolina if elected, she said. She cited the withdrawn National Labor Relations Board complaint against a Boeing Co. (BA) expansion in North Charleston, and federal legal challenges to the state’s anti-immigration and voter identification laws.
The rancor among Republicans, “is normal,” she said. “That’s what happens in a primary.”
Meanwhile, as her old supporters turn away, her pre- existing opponents are digging in, said Democratic critics.
Her missteps include replacing Darla Moore, a long-time University of South Carolina trustee, with a campaign donor, said Dick Harpootlian, a lawyer who heads the state Democratic Party. Moore had contributed so much money to the university that its business school is named after her.
Haley required employees in most state offices to answer the phone with “It’s a great day in South Carolina,” which he called an embarrassment in a state that trails the U.S. by many economic and social measurements.
The state’s 2010 poverty rate was 16.4 percent in the past year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The national rate was 13.8 percent.
Its economic health in the third quarter ranked 42nd among U.S. states, according to Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States data.
Since Haley took office, the Bloomberg State Index of South Carolina equities have trailed the Standard & Poor’s 500 by almost one percentage point. Its largest companies by market capitalization are SCANA Corp. (SCG), a Cayce-based holding company for utility and telecommunication operations; Sonoco Products Inc. (SON), a packaging manufacturer in Hartsville; and AVX Corp. (AVX) of Fountain Inn, which makes electric components.
“The business community is pleased with her strong emphasis on job creation and all her efforts to market the state,” said Wilkins, who backs Perry in the primary.
The people, for now, no longer belong to her, and her endorsement will deliver nothing for Romney, said Martin, the Spartanburg Tea Party leader.
“He is at the bottom of our list,” she said. “Perry would have made more sense. Bachmann, that would have made sense. Even Newt Gingrich would have made more sense, although he’s had his baggage.”
“Romney, that was too far for us to go.”
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