Nikki Haley of South Carolina: rise of a new GOP star

Nikki Haley won the Republican primary runoff for governor of South Carolina on Tuesday. An Indian-American, she is the favorite to best Democrat Vincent Sheheen in November.

By , Staff writer

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    Nikki Haley, center, is joined on stage by her family, and former opponent, Attorney General Henry McMaster, left, after winning the Republican nomination for governor in Columbia, S.C.,Tuesday.
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In a party eager for political talent that isn’t white and male, Republican Nikki Haley has already made her mark.

The Indian-American state legislator from South Carolina decisively won her primary runoff for governor Tuesday, beating Rep. Gresham Barrett (R) 65 percent to 35 percent. She goes into her general election contest against Democratic nominee Vincent Sheheen, a state senator, as the favorite in this solidly red state. If Ms. Haley wins, she would be South Carolina’s first woman governor and the first Indian-American woman in the country to win such a post. She would also join Bobby Jindal of Louisiana as the second Indian-American governor in the US.

South Carolina and the Republican Party scored a second win for diversity Tuesday in the First Congressional District primary runoff, with the victory of GOP state legislator Tim Scott, who is African-American. In an ironic twist, he defeated the son of late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R), a Southern political legend and former segregationist. If Mr. Scott wins in November, he will be the party’s first black member of Congress since J.C. Watts of Oklahoma retired in 2003.

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But it was Haley who won the biggest headlines. In her victory speech, she sought to downplay the politics of identity and to focus on governance in a state that became a comedic punchline a year ago, when Gov. Mark Sanford (R) disappeared and was discovered to have been with his lover in Argentina.

“This is a movement about government being open and accountable to people,” said Haley, who had support from the "tea party" movement and was endorsed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. “This is a movement that was about clear conservative ideas that just wasn’t going to take any distractions.”

Haley herself had faced allegations of marital infidelity during the campaign, which she denied. Last week, she also faced questions about tax records that showed she earned more than $40,000 as a consultant for an engineering firm that has dealings with the state. She says she did nothing wrong.

So while Haley heads toward November as the favorite, political analysts warn nothing is certain.

“Before we crown Nikki Haley, I have to say, I think Vincent Sheheen is a formidable candidate,” says David Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University and GOP strategist. “The Sheheen name stands in good stead here in South Carolina.”

Mr. Sheheen’s uncle was speaker of the South Carolina House, his father was South Carolina Commissioner of Higher Education, and his grandfather was mayor of Camden, S.C., for 10 years.

Tuesday’s vote continued other trends emerging this primary season: the success of women candidates and the demise of incumbents. In North Carolina, state Secretary of State Elaine Marshall (D) defeated the Democratic establishment favorite, former state legislator Cal Cunningham, for the right to face Sen. Richard Burr (R) in November.

And Rep. Bob Inglis (R) of South Carolina became the third House incumbent to lose his bid for renomination this year. Spartanburg County prosecutor Trey Gowdy (R) beat him easily.

In Utah, where Sen. Bob Bennett (R) already lost his chance to run for reelection at last month’s state GOP convention, attorney Mike Lee won the primary Tuesday for the GOP Senate nomination.

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