Opinion: Why doesn't South Carolina love Nikki Haley?

Nikki Haley titled her 2022 book after the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s assertion that “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.” She’s made a point of projecting that Iron Lady toughness in the 2024 race, from her Reaganesque foreign policy views and 5-inch heels she calls ammunition, to her response when Donald Trump said anyone supporting Haley after New Hampshire would be “permanently barred from the MAGA camp.”

“Well in that case…donate here. Let’s Go!” the former South Carolina governor said on X, and linked to a contribution page. Within less than 24 hours, $1 million had poured in.

Sometimes Haley has struck me as too tough, too harsh. Still, I felt for her when the top politicians from her state — the governor, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the treasurer, two congressmen, the speaker of the state House and even the senator she appointed — traipsed to New Hampshire last month to endorse and celebrate Trump. He carried the state easily and is on track to win even bigger in her home state primary on Feb. 24.

Why doesn’t South Carolina love Nikki Haley? Or maybe it does, just not enough?

A humiliating home-state loss is sometimes the final straw in a nomination race (see: Marco Rubio, Florida, 2016). It can also make the difference between winning or losing the presidency itself (see: Al Gore, Tennessee, 2000).

Gore and his state had grown apart politically, on guns and many other issues, over his decades in Congress and as vice president. Haley is facing more of a Rubio-style Rubicon moment. In South Carolina, she has trailed Trump by crushing margins in every poll.

At the same time, like Rubio, who easily won a third Senate term in 2022, Haley has not been unpopular in her state. In a Winthrop University poll in November, 59% of registered voters had a very or somewhat favorable view of her, and that rose to 71% for Republicans. And while a new Washington Post-Monmouth University poll of potential South Carolina primary voters shows her approval rating slipping as Trump has attacked her, 54% still say they’d be enthusiastic or satisfied if she became the GOP nominee.

“She is a very conservative Republican and that has made her beloved among South Carolina Republicans,” Scott Huffmon, director of Winthrop University’s Center for Public Opinion & Policy Research, told me. “They just want Donald Trump to be president again.”

That’s one problem. The other is that Haley has endeared herself to South Carolina voters far more than to her colleagues in politics. “She really curried popularity among rank-and-file Republicans, while at the same time cultivating disaffection among the political elite,” Huffmon said.

Haley’s political career took off in 2004 when she defeated a 30-year legislative veteran in a state House primary. Six years later, she became governor after besting a field that included the lieutenant governor, the attorney general and a congressman.

As governor a dozen years ago, Haley chose one-term House member Tim Scott, a conservative Black Republican, to fill a Senate vacancy. He dropped his own presidential bid in November and is now an enthusiastic Trump backer.

“You must really hate her,” Trump said as Scott smiled behind him on victory night in New Hampshire. “I just love you,” Scott replied. He must be quite madly in love, because just a few days earlier, Scott had asserted that the quadruply indicted Trump would “restore law and order.”

Then there’s Gov. Henry McMaster, another Trump lover and another politician who has a history with Haley. He was the state attorney general she defeated in the 2010 gubernatorial primary. Four years later, he was elected lieutenant governor, and he endorsed Trump early in the 2016 race. By late November that year, President-elect Trump named Haley to be his United Nations ambassador — allowing McMaster to become governor.

Trump is a vengeful cult leader. “I don’t get too angry, I get even,” he said in his “victory” speech after the New Hampshire vote — then threatened that if Haley didn’t drop out, she’d be under investigation in 15 minutes for “a little stuff that she doesn’t want to talk about.” Scott told CBS News the race would solidify for Trump in South Carolina and “I would love for her to join the Trump team and go ahead and endorse now and not wait any time.” But, as Scott also said, “she’s tenacious.”

The most astonishing thing about the Trump-versus-Haley finale is that, while I personally disagree with her on nearly everything outside of supporting Ukraine and removing the Confederate flag from the state Capitol, she is a candidate tailor-made to nudge the Republican Party into the future: the smart, conservative, 50-something daughter of immigrant Indian parents, with a multiracial family and a husband in the National Guard, who sees the world clearly and wouldn’t hand Ukraine to Vladimir Putin.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, ending his campaign a few days before the New Hampshire primary, said he’d endorse Trump “because we can’t go back to the old Republican Guard of yesteryear, a repackaged form of warmed-over corporatism that Nikki Haley represents.” But the DeSantis war on “woke” and corporations such as Disney is no path to the future, nor is the Trump war on truth, justice and the American way.

Haley is the best option. But her own state will likely finish her off if she doesn’t cave to MAGA Mania before that happens.

Jill Lawrence is an opinion writer and author of “The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock.” @JillDLawrence

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