Can Nikki Haley Break the Streak for Women in Politics?

An Indian American woman who recently surged to the top of public polls for the South Carolina GOP primary for governor found herself enmeshed in a sex scandal in late May without ever offering an admission of guilt or seeing any evidence substantiating the allegations against her. 

State Rep. Nikki Haley earned former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's endorsements in the competitive race to replace retiring Republican Gov. Mark Sanford; she also has the backing of Sanford's ex-wife, Jenny. In Tuesday's primary, Haley faces three men, all of whom hold higher office than she does: Rep. Gresham Barrett, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer and Attorney General Henry McMaster.

Will Folks, a political blogger in the Palmetto State, two weeks ago penned a sorrowful admission on his blog, FITSnews.com, that he carried on an extramarital affair several years ago with Haley, which the gubernatorial hopeful immediately denied. It was later reported that Barrett's campaign may have forced Folks to come forward with the charges, which Barrett's team immediately denied. 

Just after the first series of accusations cycled through, South Carolina lobbyist Larry Marchant claimed he had a one-night stand with Haley at a 2008 conference in Salt Lake City, and the state and national press covered it just the same as it did the Folks frenzy.

The string of high-profile indignities that have befallen American politicians since President Clinton was impeached for lying about his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky have something in common: the philandering politician was a man, who, facing evidence against him (in the press or behind the scenes), ultimately admitted it. They include former Democratic Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina; Republican Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana and John Ensign of Nevada; former Republican Reps. Mark Foley of Florida, Vito Fossella of New York, Don Sherwood of Pennsylvania, and Mark Souder of Indiana; former Democratic Rep. Eric Massa of New York; former Democratic Govs. James McGreevy of New Jersey and Eliot Spitzer of New York and the outgoing Sanford. 

Should Haley be the first woman to join that list - or should she be the object of slander - the underlying reality will be much the same: It hasn't been a very good year for women in American politics. From being cast aside by their own parties, to enduring sexism to wielding lackluster campaigns, a number of women in electoral politics just have watched their chances diminish. (See National Journal's recent feature, "Not the Year of the Woman.")

But now, one day before the Palmetto Primary, it appears as though Haley will weather the storm, as public polls show her double-digits ahead of her nearest competitor, Barrett. If she does become the state's chief executive - and she will be in a prime position to do so if she wins the primary - she just may be the one to overcome the succession of problems and disappointments. And compared to the long line of men before her who've had to battle sex scandals, she'll have been held to a different standard in achieving the coup.
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Erin McPike is the political reporter for the National Journal's CongressDaily, where she covers Senate and House races and the national political landscape. She covered Mitt Romney's last presidential campaign for NBC News and the National Journal.

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