South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley praised Vice President Joe Biden last week for boosting the Port of Charleston, a rare display of bipartisanship for a Republican who built a national profile by rebuking the federal government.
“This really is great when we can all come together and say, ‘South Carolina is moving,’” said Haley, 41, standing next to Biden and the state’s only Democrat in Congress, Jim Clyburn, at the port. “We’re seeing the jobs come in, we’re seeing the infrastructure happen.”
The spirit of cross-party harmony didn’t last long. State Democrats, who believe Haley is vulnerable in next year’s election, accused the governor of “hypocrisy” and political corruption at the port. The accusations, which Haley denies, reflect Democrats’ increasingly aggressive and sharp-elbowed campaign to unseat South Carolina’s first woman governor and shoot down a rising national Republican Party star.
Haley, an Indian-American who Republican leaders say is uniquely qualified to carry the party’s message to minorities, women and young voters, has for that reason become a top target for Democrats. As she’s tried to stay focused on job creation, opponents have used ethics charges and management mishaps as openings to knock her off track.
Taking the governor’s office would be a difficult coup. South Carolina, which President Barack Obama lost by 10 percentage points to Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 election, has had one Democratic governor in the past 25 years. Still, as attacks intensified, Haley’s voter-approval rating remained less than 50 percent as recently as April.
Foes have seized on ethics investigations, the hacking of Revenue Department computers and a mishandled tuberculosis outbreak to undermine Haley’s upbeat message on jobs. For the governor, it may seem just more of what she weathered in the 2010 campaign, which included suggestions of marital infidelity and questions about late tax payments.
State Senator Vincent Sheheen, a Camden Democrat who lost to Haley in 2010 and plans to challenge her again, said he expects to make “leadership,” not the economy, the top issue in next year’s race.
“It’s been an embarrassment nationally,” Sheheen, a 42-year-old lawyer, said of Haley’s governorship. “We’ve had scandal after scandal.”
Haley’s campaign team and Republican strategists in the state have dismissed the attacks as baseless attempts by Democrats to distract voters from her economic record.
“All those allegations have gone nowhere,” said Henry McMaster, a former South Carolina attorney general who lost to Haley in the 2010 party primary and praises her record on jobs.
Rob Godfrey, a Haley campaign spokesman, described Sheheen as a “political ambulance chaser” and said the governor’s administration was “the most transparent and open” in state history. Haley, who declined an interview request, overcame Sheheen’s allegations of dishonesty in 2010 by sticking to her message of job growth and balancing budgets, and may reprise the performance in 2014.
Phil Cox, the executive director of the Republican Governors Association in Washington, said he expects Haley to cruise to re-election as voters credit her for an economic rebound. The state’s job-growth rate reached 1.9 percent in the 12 months through August, compared with the national 1.6 percent pace, according to U.S. Labor Department data. South Carolina’s 8.1 percent August unemployment rate, while higher than the 7.3 percent U.S. level, is down from 10.6 percent in January 2011.
“South Carolina has the fastest-growing economy on the East Coast, the lowest unemployment in five years and a resurgence in manufacturing,” Cox said by telephone.
As Haley has trumpeted the comeback at economic-development announcements across South Carolina, voter surveys suggest that winning re-election won’t be easy.
An April telephone poll by Winthrop University in Rock Hill showed about 45 percent of registered voters approved of Haley’s job performance, while 39 percent disapproved. Yet her favorable number rose from 40 percent in December, according to the school’s website, and her party’s dominance provides an edge.
“Vincent Sheheen still has an uphill battle” said Scott Huffmon, who teaches politics at Winthrop and managed its poll. “He’s still an underdog.”
While most Democrats in South Carolina statehouse races lost by more than 10 percentage points in 2010, Haley, then a little-known state representative from Lexington County, beat Sheheen by just 4.5 percentage points. Democrats say that narrow result shows she remains vulnerable.
Haley’s 2010 winning margin reflected race, age and gender barriers she had to conquer to become the state’s first chief executive from a minority group, said Cox and other Republicans. Those hurdles no longer exist, Cox said.
Haley, the nation’s youngest governor, has risen quickly on the national political scene, speaking in primetime at the 2012 Republican National Convention. She kicked off her re-election campaign last month flanked by Governors Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Rick Perry of Texas and Scott Walker of Wisconsin -- all potential 2016 presidential contenders.
Her accomplishments have won praise from both Tea Party groups and corporate leaders. The governor has cut business taxes, enacted pension changes and signed bills on immigration and voter-identification.
Haley’s personal story -- a daughter of immigrants from India’s Punjab who became a Southern governor -- helped put her among the nation’s highest-profile Republicans. As a mother of two whose husband served with the National Guard in Afghanistan, her allure has attracted both women voters and national donors.
Her appeal sometimes transcends politics. Haley drew national news coverage this month when she said on her Facebook Inc. Web page that she’d locked herself out of the governor’s mansion in her bathrobe one morning after seeing her children off to school.
Yet as Haley’s political profile has risen, she has come under increased scrutiny.
State ethics committees have probed her taxpayer-funded travel, campaign donations and businesses she worked for while a lawmaker. Most of these investigations were eventually dropped or settled, often after generating months of headlines.
A 2012 breach of Revenue Department systems continues to haunt the governor. Hackers stole data on more than 6 million tax filers, including bank account information and Social Security numbers. Haley later said the state “should have done better” in protecting the records.
A tuberculosis outbreak at a rural elementary school this year led to whistle-blower lawsuits, legislative hearings and political attacks. More than 50 children tested positive for the disease, and parents blamed the state for not warning them quickly enough.
Democrats such as Sheheen have tried to pin missteps on Haley, accusing her administration of “incompetence.”
Haley’s campaign team and Republican allies have defended her record, saying she has worked to deal with the incidents and shouldn’t be held accountable for misfortune.
“I think common-sense people blame hackers for hacking scandals,” said Matt Moore, the state Republican Party chairman. “They don’t blame political leaders.”
None of the barbs have shaken Haley enough to distract her from keeping to a schedule crowded with ribbon cuttings, jobs announcements and trade missions.
Yet Sheheen may succeed in diverting the theme of next year’s campaign away from jobs and growth.
“The economy will not be the major issue” next year, said Mark Thompkins, who teaches politics at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, the state capital. “It’s going to be more about these questions of whether she’s running the state effectively.”
Sheheen’s attempts to sway voters by linking Haley to scandals may prove to be a tough sell, said Huffmon, the Winthrop pollster. He cited a Republican-friendly electorate that has put all nine statewide offices and both U.S. Senate seats in that party’s hands.
Willie Durkin, the owner of Columbia’s Thirsty Fellow restaurant, said the negative attacks haven’t changed his views.
“All campaigns generally end up slinging mud,” said Durkin, who supports Haley. “I don’t think she’s responsible for any of those negative issues.”