Politics & Policy

Daring Nikki

Haley didn't merely survive the pressure of a late, messy campaign finale; she thrived.

Hilton Head Island, S.C. — You can forgive South Carolinians for wanting to get this gubernatorial primary behind them. One year after their governor, Mark Sanford, became a national laughingstock for traveling to Argentina and then talking honestly and endlessly about his affair, a series of accusations and counter-accusations has led national observers to label the Palmetto state “the stink hole of Republican politics.”

But something important happened Tuesday night: The candidate who had been the target of the most outlandish accusations, gubernatorial candidate and state representative Nikki Haley, won the largest share of the vote and came within a hair of winning outright and avoiding a runoff. On June 22, Haley will face Congressman Gresham Barrett. Haley finished with roughly 49 percent of the vote; Barrett finished with 21.7 percent.

#ad#South Carolina is deemed a heavily Republican state, and indeed it does send plenty of notable GOP lawmakers to Washington: Sens. Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham, and Rep. Joe Wilson, famous for shouting “you lie!” during a speech by Obama to both houses of Congress. But it is not a conservative’s paradise; state politics are often dominated by a powerful political establishment that likes to take care of its own and dish out favors to its friends. The governorship is relatively weak and the legislature is strong; Michael Barone’s Almanac of American Politics cites the anecdote of Sanford, a true fiscal conservative, issuing 106 vetoes on spending he deemed excessive and the legislature overriding 105 of them.

To take another example, South Carolina has a sales tax of 6 percent — but numerous exemptions have been written into the law over the years, reflecting the whims of state lawmakers, meaning there is a sales tax on clothing, cars, and computers, but not on services such as haircuts or car repairs. The exemptions are estimated to amount to $2.65 billion annually. On paper, you have the unusual circumstance of conservative activists calling for the end of special exemptions and thus, technically, a tax increase, but the sense is that the current Byzantine system of exemptions amounts to a tax on the politically powerless. According to state senator Tom Davis, a reform-minded Republican from Beaufort County, removing all of the exemptions and applying the tax evenly could lower the rate to 2.4 percent.

Meanwhile, in the eyes of many members of the grassroots, lieutenant governor and gubernatorial candidate Andre Bauer personified the good ol’ boys’ network. Bauer has given his critics plenty of fodder. Behind the wheel, he has had two accidents, four tickets, and one suspended license for failure to pay a ticket; two other times, he was caught speeding and not ticketed, including one incident of going more than 100 miles an hour. This led to a 2007 effort within the state legislature to get Bauer a security employee who could drive him in a state car (presumably to help him avoid further unfortunate incidents on the road). The recommended driver — who would earn $64,000 — just happened to be the son of a state senator. Sanford vetoed the legislation that included the provision.

Among the first to defend Bauer after his speeding escapades came to light was state senator Jake Knotts, who is now infamous for making the case against Bauer rival Nikki Haley in racial terms: “We’ve already got a raghead in the White House; we dont need another raghead in the governor’s mansion.”

So the fact that South Carolina is a Republican state doesn’t necessarily mean that the Republican grassroots are pleased with the Republicans governing their state. (This may have played a bit of a factor in Mark Sanford’s surviving his embarrassing scandal; in most fights, the grassroots deemed Sanford to have been on the right side, and Bauer a potential disaster as governor.)

#page#Enter Nikki Haley, who early in a promising state legislative career became bothered by how many laws were passed by lawmakers simply shouting “yea” or “nay,” with no record of specific lawmakers’ positions. For more than two and a half years, she pushed hard to change the rules to record more votes; other lawmakers amended her early attempts to turn them into twisted parodies of reform: “No matter how many or how loud House members shout ‘nay,’ a new rule will record all voice votes as ‘yeas’ and leave it up to those voting ‘no’ to head to the clerk’s desk to have their votes properly recorded. And what about lawmakers who could have left early or ducked out for a bathroom break, coffee or a phone call? The rule records them all as voting ‘yea,’ too, unless they tell the clerk they were out during the vote,” the Associated Press reported of one such attempt in 2008.

After the House passed legislation to permit more recorded votes, Haley went head-to-head against . . . state senator Jake Knotts, who dismissed her testimony as “a campaign speech” and argued that a bill requiring more recorded votes could be unconstitutional.

#ad#In light of this, perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised that roughly one week after a poll came out showing Haley with a sizable lead, her enemies would seek to tear down her image as a trustworthy reformer. First, blogger Will Folks claimed an “inappropriate physical relationship,” but failed to provide any conclusive proof. Then a lobbyist who was a professional fundraiser for the Bauer campaign, Larry Marchant, claimed that he had had a one-night stand with Haley, although he immediately conceded that he, too, couldn’t generate any actual proof. He volunteered to take a lie-detector test, and underwent one, at the expense of a local Fox News affiliate. The result was “inconclusive.”

With a state establishment that seems to avoid the consequences of lawbreaking, reaches into the public purse to create jobs for family, ignores the basic democratic requirement of recording votes, and attacks any serious challenger with increasingly outlandish smears, the Republican grassroots are mad as hell at the governing class, even if they do have an “R” after their name. Public Policy Polling’s Tom Jensen determined, “South Carolina Republicans are extremely unhappy with their party’s direction. Only 27 percent like where it’s headed while 43 percent think there needs be a change of course. There are vast differences in how voters are planning to cast their ballots today depending on which of those camps they fall in. With those who think the current direction is fine Haley leads Gresham Barrett only 31–29 with Henry McMaster just a little further back at 23 percent. But among the voters who think the GOP needs a shakeup Haley is winning a staggering 57 percent with Barrett a full 40 points behind at 17 percent.”

Jensen compares Haley to Kentuckys Rand Paul and Nevada’s Sharron Angle, but that’s probably not quite accurate. For starters, Haley’s controversies all have come from as-yet-unverified outside accusations; she hasn’t been troubled by off-the-cuff comments about the Civil Rights Act or past support of massage therapies in prison. Those tea-party-fueled federal candidates are running on passionately anti-Washington platforms, while Haley is focused on fixing a state capital. The problems with Columbia may echo those in Washington, but her campaign isn’t focused on Democratic overreach; it aims at a bipartisan, even Republican-dominated, attitude of entitlement.

On primary night, Chuck Todd expressed surprise that the two statewide candidates — Bauer and state attorney general Henry McMaster — performed worst. He shouldn’t have been surprised; the GOP grassroots in the Palmetto State have determined that there are worse public officials than one who wanders to South America in a humiliating midlife crisis, and that some issues aren’t even that ideological. A lawmaker either accepts accountability and responsibility with the public purse or he doesn’t.

On primary night, that boys’ network learned there is a fine line between “old” and “one foot in the grave.”

Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.

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