State of the Union January/February 2011

Good Ol’ Girl

Dubbed the “Daddy Party” 20 years ago, the GOP suddenly finds itself challenged from within by a wave of conservative women, from Sarah Palin and her “mama grizzlies” to Michele Bachmann and the Tea Party leadership. As an Indian American woman, Nikki Haley broke two barriers to become the governor of South Carolina. Was her hard-won victory over the state’s good-ol’-boy establishment a fluke, or a sign of fundamental change in the Republican Party?

In some ways, Nikki Haley defies the “mama grizzly” stereotype. She never seemed—unlike, say, Christine O’Donnell—better suited to reality TV than to the rigors of a political race. Despite her good looks, the former three-term state representative doesn’t smile all that easily, and she often looks as if she’s puzzling through an important problem in her head. Throughout her campaign, she presented herself less as a rebel outsider than as a corporate accountant with a competitive streak. In her debates against her Democratic opponent, Vincent Sheheen, one of the most heated subjects of dispute was whether the state department of education had 880 or 1,179 employees. (Haley pushed the latter figure as proof of government excess and waste.)

On the stump, Haley shied away from emphasizing her personal identity and potentially historic role. In the debates, it was Sheheen who remembered to thank his spouse or tell personal anecdotes, while Haley stuck to the facts. She rarely mentioned her husband, Michael, a technician in the National Guard, or her children, Rena, 12, and Nalin, 8. Haley told me that she tried to take the kids to school in the mornings and kiss them goodnight, and to call and text them throughout the day. But she did not want to disrupt their lives by dragging them on the campaign trail.

Yet, as Winthrop University political-science professor Scott Huffmon notes, Haley’s identity was always the “background music to the motion picture,” leading to strong support and opposition alike. Early in the primary, Haley had trailed both in the polls and in fund-raising. But in mid-May, ReformSC, a state group with a Tea Party–ish agenda, announced a $400,000 ad buy on Haley’s behalf, and Sarah Palin visited Columbia to endorse her, calling her a “scrappy under­dog in a tough, competitive primary” and “most proudly, the loving mother of two beautiful kids.” A May 17 Rasmussen poll showed her leaping 18­ points, from fourth place to first, where she remained until winning the nomination in a primary runoff in June.

Not everyone in the state GOP was enthusiastic about her victory. The week before the general election, an unscientific survey of lawmakers conducted by South Carolina’s largest newspaper, TheState, found that nearly half of the Republicans who responded said they intended to vote for the Democrat, Sheheen, a state senator with long family ties in South Carolina government. And while most of the legislators with whom I spoke did not express their concerns as bluntly as Jake Knotts did, several offered variations on the attitude voiced by Republican State Senator John Courson: “I don’t know her.”

Haley even had the rare honor of being dogged by a party splinter faction throughout the general-election campaign. A group called Conservatives for Truth in Politics aggressively trumpeted stories about Haley’s alleged character issues: a failure to pay taxes on time, a potential conflict of interest involving her work with a local hospital, and most of all, two rumored extramarital affairs, one with a blogger (and former spokesman for ex-Governor Mark Sanford), Will Folks, and another with a lobbyist, Larry Marchant. Shortly before the election, the group persuaded Folks to sign an affidavit regarding the alleged infidelity, which included such details as “We slid back the seats of her Cadillac SUV so that Rep. Haley could climb on top of me.” (If anything, the affair allegations ultimately seemed to backfire, creating voter sympathy for Haley.)

After one of the debates, I met with the co-chair of Conservatives for Truth in Politics, a former GOP state vice-chairwoman named Cyndi Mosteller. Tall and striking herself, Mosteller is a trained Christian counselor who listed, with consistent venom, a litany of complaints regarding Haley, from the affair allegations to the candidate’s shifting position on a state grocery tax. I had the impression Mosteller was searching for any tidbit that would confirm her general sense of unease, as if Haley were the designated outlier on a season of Real Housewives, who didn’t quite fit into the local society scene. “What exactly are her values?” Mosteller asked suggestively. “We have values, but what are hers?”

Haley was born in the one-stoplight, working-class town of Bamberg, South Carolina, as Nimrata Nikki Randhawa, the third child of a Sikh family who came over from India to Canada with $8 in their pockets, according to her elder sister, Simran Singh. When they arrived in Bamberg a few years later, Singh said, a local physician found the family a “wonderful small home” to live in. The next day, however, they had to return the key: the owners did not want people with “brown skin” living there. This happened once more until, on the third try, they found someone willing to sell them a house, as long as they agreed to sell it back when they moved out, not drink alcohol, and not invite over other “people of color.”

Like Palin, Nikki Haley had a beauty-pageant moment, but one with a more discouraging outcome. When her sister was 8 and she was 4, the two of them entered the Little Miss Bamberg pageant, Singh told me. In previous years, the judges had crowned one white and one African American winner, but they were baffled over what to do with the two Indian American girls. At intermission, they called all the contestants on the stage: white girls on one side, black girls on the other, with the Haley sisters standing alone in the middle. The judges then announced that they had to disqualify the sisters, and handed each of them crayons and a coloring book. Before ushering them off the stage, they let Nikki sing the song she had prepared, “This Land Is Your Land.”

“I went further into my shell, really feeling my difference within society,” Singh told me. “Nikki anchored more strongly in her right to be a part of this country. She believed the song she was singing, despite the appearances.” The kids built themselves a typical American childhood: playing Monopoly and the Game of Life, watching Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch, and later, The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. In grade school, Nikki, always the more outgoing of the sisters, announced that one day she wanted to be mayor of Bamberg.

Haley once described her childhood as “survival mode,” but these days she spins it more cheerfully. She does not like her sister’s beauty-pageant anecdote, for example. “It doesn’t show all the great things about Bamberg,” she told me. “I like to tell a more positive story. Bamberg is a great town of 2,500 people with a strong work ethic. And it’s there that I learned that neighbors need to take care of each other.”

Throughout the campaign, Haley played down her ethnicity and gender. In an appearance with a fellow Republican, Tim Scott, who subsequently won election as the state’s first African-­American Republican representative in more than a century, Haley made a point of saying, “We are going to make history on Tuesday, but it’s not history because there’s the first female governor … It’s history because South Carolina will show what a good government looks like.” Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a Democrat and one of the few African American women in the state legislature, told me, “There are many people in the state who don’t think of her as Indian at all. They think she is just a nice conservative woman with a tan.”

But being a nice conservative woman in the South brings its own challenges. For the past eight years, South Carolina has had the lowest percentage of women serving in a state legislature. (Oklahoma has the second-lowest.) The state’s Republican Party chairwoman, Karen Floyd, told me she was one of only a handful of women in her neighborhood who held a job outside the house, and that she felt it was still a “nontraditional” choice. “We are in the Bible Belt,” she said. “Change comes slowly.” Winthrop University’s Scott Huffmon adds that a woman running for office has the special burden of proving “she is also a great wife and mother. It’s part of the southern ethos.”

Singh believes that, such cultural challenges notwithstanding, her sister’s femininity has been one of her main strengths. Now 42, Singh runs a holistic spiritual center in downtown Lexington—the window promises “choices for conscious living,” including “yoga, life coaching, holistic health, and breathwork”—and, somewhat improbably, she argues that she and her little sister are doing similar work. “She’s cleaning up the outer landscape, and I am cleaning up the inner landscape,” she told me. “The old ways are changing, and now is the time for the feminine essence to come forward. There are more female politicians, more feminine power and energy rising up. It’s not about the specific policies, it’s about the feminine essence, with all it has to offer.”

Haley, for her part, brushes aside such talk. When I asked her whether being a woman mattered to her candidacy, she dismissed it as “something the national media makes a big deal about.”

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Hanna Rosin is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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