The race for the Republican presidential nomination has pivoted towards South Carolina’s January 21 primary. Because the state’s primary voters have selected the eventual GOP nominee in every contested White House race since 1980, every campaign is putting out a maximum effort.
One of the aces that Mitt Romney believes he holds in the Palmetto State is the endorsement of Nikki Haley, the new 39-year-old governor who rocketed to political stardom last year by challenging the good-ol’-boy political network in the state. Fueled by endorsements from both Sarah Palin and Romney, Haley was able to marshal tea-party support to crush a sitting attorney general, a sitting congressman, and the state’s lieutenant governor, winning the GOP nomination and then the general election.
It was classic political Cinderella theater, with the story of the state’s first governor from a minority group (Haley is Indian-American) taking place on the 150th anniversary of its secession from the union and providing a powerful symbol of just how far the South has progressed. But one year after she was sworn in, enough of the luster has worn off that former governor Mark Sanford, her immediate predecessor and political mentor, is discouraged. “I wonder if she’ll be more of a liability to Romney than she is an asset,” he told me. “She’s taken her eye off the ball and lost focus.”
His comments are echoed by several tea-party leaders I spoke with, who say her efforts at cutting government have been half-hearted at best. “She is increasingly falling back in line with legislative leaders bent on preserving the old system,” says Brit Adams, a leader of the Upstate Coalition, a collection of tea-party groups in the Greenville area. “She talked about school choice and zero-based budgeting in the campaign, and now those things have dropped away,” says Talbert Black, the founder of Palmetto Liberty, a local political action committee.
Haley certainly has seen her approval ratings slump since being sworn in, although just how much is a point of dispute. According to a December Winthrop University poll, the governor’s approval rating is 35 percent, with only a little more than half of Republicans giving her a thumbs-up. Since every statewide official in South Carolina is a Republican, the GOP controls the legislature, and Republicans have a seven-to-one advantage in the congressional delegation, the Winthrop survey rang alarm bells everywhere.
The governor punched back. Appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press, she dismissed this “local poll” because it also showed that President Obama would today win South Carolina, which would be a bizarre result since he lost the state by 9 percentage points in 2008.
But the poll in question didn’t test President Obama’s general-election prospects in South Carolina, only his statewide approval rating. This came in at 45 percent — higher than Haley’s. The governor’s office was forced to admit she had misspoken.
“She sure didn’t have a problem with this ‘local poll’ when we correctly predicted her gubernatorial victory in 2010,” Scott Huffmon, the director of the Winthrop poll, commented, noting that his survey predicted Haley’s defeat of Democrat Vincent Sheheen in the general election. Nonetheless, Team Haley has a point when arguing that the survey is somewhat suspect. “I have consistently found a durable ten-point Republican-party affiliation edge in South Carolina elections,” says Haley strategist Jon Lerner. “The Winthrop poll surveyed 3.6 percent more Democrats than Republicans, so there was an inaccurate partisan weighing.”
That appears correct, but fixing it would still leave the governor with an approval rating only in the 40s, which is what recent private polls I was shown all pegged her at. A Public Policy Polling survey in September had her at 41 percent approval.
That level isn’t what an incumbent governor would hope for after a year in office. Even Governor Sanford, who crippled his own administration in 2009 when he admitted to leaving the state to meet his Argentine lover, ended his two terms in office a year ago with an approval rating near 50 percent.
“Everyone knows she has a weak governorship in which the major budget decisions are made by a five-member control board, on which she is only one vote,” says Ashley Landess, president of the free-market South Carolina Policy Council. “That said, she hasn’t taken on the power structure like her allies hoped, but rather accommodated herself to it.”
Chris Drummond, a former communications director for Governor Sanford, agrees. “The control board has a reform-minded state treasurer and state comptroller and two legislative committee chairmen and the governor on it,” he told me. “Too often the governor is voting to logroll with the legislative chairmen rather than voting for reform.” Although she will submit her own budget for the first time this month, her line-item vetoes of last year’s budget were minuscule and, in Sanford’s eyes, “prearranged” with legislative leaders. “She misled a lot of reformers. I regret my efforts to help her get elected,” Drummond told me.
Nikki Haley rode to prominence on a key issue in 2010. As a state representative, she bravely led the fight against legislative secrecy, pointing out that less than 8 percent of the bills passed by the legislature had a roll-call vote. She was ridiculed by Bobby Harrell, Speaker of the state house, who stripped her of a committee assignment and dismissed attempts to require roll-call votes “as a waste of taxpayer time and money.” But the issue of transparency resonated with the public and helped propel her to an improbable primary victory, with sleazy last-minute allegations of adultery barely slowing her down.
“Nikki agreed with us that there is a great disconnect between the people and the governing elites in South Carolina,” Ashley Landess told me. “We have an electorate that mostly supports small government, but most of the legislative leaders are slavish supporters of corporate welfare who think they are the conduit to prosperity.” She says that, far from breaking up that system, the governor has increasingly coddled it.
The governor’s office vehemently disagrees, and notes that the last legislative session saw the passage of tort reform, a requirement that all spending votes in the legislature be recorded, and a law requiring that a photo ID be shown at the polls. She was also a fierce opponent of attempts by the Obama-appointed National Labor Relations Board to sanction Boeing for building a new plant in South Carolina.
Drummond calls most of those issues “low-lying fruit” that were so popular it’s no surprise the legislature passed them. And as for transparency, he says there’s a clear distinction between rhetoric and reality in the Haley administration. Columnist Isaac Bailey of the Myrtle Beach Sun News concludes that “she’s done just about everything to make it impossible for the public to know what she is doing and why, even going out of her way to hide or delete emails or using personal accounts to dodge open document requirements.”
Indeed, some Republican activists are furious at her sudden decision to ask the state’s environmental board to reverse itself and approve a permit to allow a dredging project that will benefit the port of Savannah, Ga., a competitor of Charleston’s port. Some Republicans ran an ad during a recent football game between the University of South Carolina and Clemson accusing her of making a backroom deal. When the Republican legislature held hearings on the issue, Haley staffers initially refused to testify and cooperated only after subpoenas were issued.
Rob Godfrey, the governor’s communications director, says such criticism shouldn’t surprise anyone because “when you run for office as a champion of transparency, you always set yourself up for critics saying you are not transparent enough. But the reality is that no governor in South Carolina history has been as transparent as Governor Haley. She goes further than is required by law.”
Many of Haley’s original supporters say they understand she entered office without executive experience, and they expected some rocky moments. But they say hiring a very young staff known more for its loyalty than its competence has compounded her problems. Mark Sanford has an edge of sadness in his voice when discussing her first year with me: “She’s on the cover of national magazines, her book will be out in April — I think it can be confusing, and all this has led her to punt on some of the really big issues she ran on.”
Nikki Haley remains a political superstar in national Republican circles, and her charm and fighting spirit are undeniable. But it’s increasingly clear that many of the people who elected her are worried that because of either national distractions or an unwillingness to fully confront the power structure she ran against, she is becoming what last year she said she loathed — just another politician.
— Mr. Fund, a columnist, is the author of Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy, which was recently published in a new edition. This article originally appeared in the Jan. 23, 2012, issue of National Review.