Hilton Head Island, S.C. — Three weeks ago, South Carolina state representative Nikki Haley was one of the Republican party’s brightest rising stars: the first Indian-American GOP state legislator in the country, a reformer who demonstrated a willingness to take on her own party over accountability, and a surprise front-running gubernatorial candidate. A November victory would make her instantly a subject of presidential-ticket talk for either 2012 or 2016.
Today, more than a week after a bombshell accusation of an affair that made national headlines . . . she’s in pretty much the same spot.
Early on in the campaign, race watchers deemed Haley a potential breakout star; she impressed them by taking on her own party over the importance of having recorded votes (instead of voice votes, in which no record is made of which lawmakers approved and which opposed a particular bill or amendment). But she faced a crowded primary: Henry McMaster was one of the first state attorneys general to challenge the constitutionality of Obamacare, U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett has a lifetime American Conservative Union rating of 98, and Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer rounded out the field.
Two weeks before the primary, and shortly after former Alaska governor Sarah Palin attended a rally for Haley at the state capitol, Haley’s campaign hit the kind of bump that every campaign manager dreads: Will Folks, a former spokesman for South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, former consultant to Haley, and blogger, declared he had had, before his marriage, an “inappropriate physical relationship” with the candidate.
Folks is an unusual character, even by South Carolina standards. He was charged with domestic battery in 2005; he pled guilty while insisting he was innocent, discussing the charges in an op-ed in The State newspaper. Before the public claim of the affair, his website offered a parody interview that quickly turned bizarre, with a faux-Folks telling faux-Haley “Shut your mouth, don’t you know I beat up women? Like, all the time?” to canned laughter. Then there’s the less-than-reassuring characterization that Folks “shrugs off accusations that he is paid to publish certain stories.”
Haley denied the affair. Folks’s initial post indicated he would not be making additional comments about the relationship, but it quickly became clear that he intended to post regular teasing updates, often remarking how everyone in the state wanted to know the details of his claim. Yet after a week of infuriating posts, neither he nor any other publication has shown something that definitively refutes Haley’s denials; the state has been left waiting for a smoking gun.
Folks began his original post by claiming that “within the last forty-eight hours several pieces of information which purportedly document a prior physical relationship between myself and Rep. Haley have begun to be leaked slowly, piece by piece, to members of the mainstream media. I am told that at least one story based upon this information will be published this week.” But more than a week after his claim, no publication has come forward with any evidence documenting that physical relationship. Folks himself has released phone records indicating a great number of calls between the two, including some lengthy late-night calls, but after-hours calls between a candidate and a consultant don’t really prove the “inappropriate physical relationship” he alleged. South Carolina’s largest newspaper, Columbia-based The State, flatly concludes: “Folks has not provided proof.”
If Folks or someone else does generate indisputable evidence of an affair, Haley will be in trouble for not merely lying to the public but for lying repeatedly and convincingly. But for now, the passion of her denial, Folks’s contradictory claims, and the general lack of proof appear to have rendered the potential scandal a non-factor. Polling has been fairly sparse in this race, but Haley has led all three conducted so far, with her lead ranging from 10 to 21 percentage points. One of the three was conducted after Folks’s claim; it put her ahead by almost 11.
The Republican gubernatorial candidates debated Tuesday, and while Folks’s claim came up, none of her rivals dared to press the issue. In fact, the Augusta NBC affiliate characterized their response as “back[ing] her up.” Wednesday, the coverage from The State mentioned Haley’s denial in the second paragraph and didn’t return to the topic until seven paragraphs later; the print version of the Hilton Head Island Packet deleted even those modest references from its version of The State’s coverage. (Late Wednesday night, Larry Marchant, a lobbyist affiliated with the campaign of rival Andre Bauer resigned, and claimed that he too had had an affair with Haley, a one-night stand. He said he could not produce any proof of their encounter. In their second debate in as many nights, Haley accused Bauer of pushing the rumors earlier in the week and dismissing Marchant only when it became clear that no one took his claims seriously. Bauer denied her accusation and said he wanted nothing to do with Marchant’s claims.)
It’s not as if the candidates don’t have actual issues to discuss. After rampant growth the past decade, South Carolina’s unemployment is near the worst in the nation at 11.6 percent, and the Gulf Coast spill has many residents wondering about the risk in long-discussed plans to seek natural gas or oil off the Palmetto State’s coast. The Packet’s main article on the debate focused on the candidates’ views on drilling. All but McMaster are still open to the idea, provided it is out of sight from shore and the cause of the Gulf Coast spill is clearly determined and solved.
“We don’t stop all the planes from flying. What we do is we look at that accident, we learn from it and say, ‘What do we need to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?’ That’s what we need to do here,” Haley summarized during the debate.
Meanwhile, the coverage of the claims on Will Folks’s website is increasingly bizarre, almost to the point of self-parody. A “News” item on his site declared Wednesday, “Needless to say, Folks has always had a ‘hyper-inflated’ sense of his own self worth, as well as a remarkable ability to survive scandals and ignore what he calls ‘the haters.’ Now, with the Haley saga adding another chapter to what was already a juicy personal and political narrative, there has been conisderable [sic] speculation as to whether Folks will publish a book — something he wanted to do in 2006 prior to launching FITS. Even one of Haley’s top donors has recommended that Folks reserve some of the more salacious details of his tryst with the front-running gubernatorial candidate for future publication, suggesting the move would be a ‘golden, golden, golden opportunity.’”
South Carolina Republicans make their choice June 8. If no candidate receives at least 50 percent of the vote in the primary, a runoff will be held between the top two vote-getters. Unless the polling is wildly inaccurate, it’s hard to imagine Haley not at least making the runoff.
Republicans nationally may be sighing a breath of relief. The relationship between national parties and state parties is comparable to that of a major-league baseball team and its minor-league affiliates; as the national talent ages past its prime, the larger institution needs the farm clubs to consistently offer fresh talent with broad potential.
Sometimes, a state’s political culture crushes rising talent before it gets a chance to shine. New York’s state party is beset by infighting, and appears set to lose a governor’s race and two U.S. Senate races by wide margins simultaneously. Until Scott Brown’s upset win, Massachusetts Republicans seemed to be a political nonentity for a long stretch, and Ohio’s GOP nearly inflicted intractable damage to the party’s image with a series of scandals a few years ago.
And then there’s South Carolina. On paper, this state is an ideal testing ground for future national conservative leaders: The electorate combines a traditional local culture of agriculture, fishing, and religious conservatism, and has in its population a remarkable number of recent transplants, from young families to retired military personnel. Across the state, most counties experienced rapid growth for much of the past decade, from the northern-edge suburbs across the state line from Charlotte, N.C., to the resort and retirement hub here on the state’s southern tip. In fostering entrepreneurship and a better and less expensive quality of life, the Palmetto State could, until the recent recession, argue that it had become the East Coast equivalent of California or Nevada.
But any Republican who wants to reach high office has to maneuver a ruthless and cutthroat political culture that would intimidate Machiavelli. The GOP primary for state treasurer features a challenger running attack ads, hitting the incumbent for driving a state vehicle with a navigation package that’s too expensive.
For now, it appears Haley will emerge from a hard-fought primary largely unscathed. Of course, there’s always the chance Will Folks will have something to say about her GPS system.
– Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot for NRO.