Opinion

Nikki Haley, Once a Trump Foe, Moves to the Front of the Line

S.C. governor knows how to satisfy the base and when to seize the moment

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s rise through the GOP ranks has been part savvy, part timing and a bit of luck, writes Mary C. Curtis. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)

When South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, all smiles, made a strategic visit to New York last week to meet with President-elect Donald Trump, it was a different vision than most of those parading in and out to see the soon-to-be top guy. She was one of the first potential candidates who was not a white guy in a suit.

And now that the Indian-American Haley has been picked by Trump to be the country’s ambassador to the United Nations, we know why she was smiling. Chosen as the first woman and first minority chosen for a Cabinet-level position, the 44-year-old leader just may be the future of the Republican Party. Those who doubt that definitely have not been following the conservative Republican governor who has charted her own path, satisfying her base yet knowing when to seize the moment even if it means taking a chance.

Coming out against Trump in the beginning of his quest and finally progressing only to lukewarm toward his candidacy has hardly hurt her. She said their recent visit was between “friends who had known each other before.” But things weren’t so friendly after her January response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. It was Trump’s rhetoric Haley was responding to when she warned that “during anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation.” Her advice? “Turn down the volume.” Trump took a few swipes at her, sending out a reminder that he had contributed to her own campaign.

During the GOP primary, Haley called it a “Benetton commercial” when she and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, an African-American who cruised past Strom Thurmond’s son along his way up the ladder in South Carolina politics, stood with Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio as they backed his bid.

Trump went the other way, of course, and won largely on the strength of white voter turnout, GOP 2012 talk of expanding the demographic tent forgotten. But the folks in that diverse tableau didn’t make out too badly. After his presidential hopes died, Rubio successfully reclaimed his Senate seat and Haley and Scott are still strong in deep-red South Carolina, signs they are not going anywhere but up.

Having Haley perceived as a visible ally certainly could help Trump reassure Americans, as white supremacists meet in Washington to celebrate his victory. Though a speech by the incoming president would do more.

[Nikky Haley’s Bumpy Road to Power]

When she started her own political path to the governor’s office, Haley was the underdog in her primary, subject to racist slurs from some in her own party when she ran with tea party backing in the gubernatorial primary in 2010. An endorsement from Jenny Sanford, wronged wife of onetime golden boy and Haley mentor Gov. Mark Sanford, came at exactly the right time, as did a thumb’s up and South Carolina visit from Sarah Palin. Though Mark Sanford has bounced back to become a congressman, it’s Haley who makes the news. Ethics questions didn’t stop her from being re-elected handily.

Haley’s strongest moment may have been after the murder of nine African-American churchgoers at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in June 2015. Photographs surfaced of the man charged, Dylann Roof, holding a Confederate flag. Scott was at her side, along with GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, Democratic Rep. James Clyburn and Sanford as Haley announced that the huge flag flying on Statehouse grounds would be removed to a museum. It was a symbolic move, certainly, and one she had previously resisted and dismissed — but symbols mean something, and after legislative speeches by the flag’s die-hard defenders, it was moved.

She reacted quickly when flooding devastated South Carolina last year, and later stepped up to tout recovery programs, even those she had at one time opposed. Haley also kept her conservative pro-business bona fides while being flexible on an issue that has tripped up her GOP counterpart Gov. Pat McCrory in next-door North Carolina.

When a Republican South Carolina legislator was proposing a law similar to North Carolina’s court-contested House Bill 2 that says transgender individuals must use the bathroom designated by the sex on their birth certificates, Haley said her state didn’t need it. She was sparing South Carolina the boycotts and bad publicity that will probably cost McCrory the seat he is presently holding onto with challenges, fraud charges and desperation after coming up a few thousand votes short on Nov. 8. His Democratic challenger, Attorney General Roy Cooper, is naming his transition team while waiting for election officials to call the race.

[Trump to Pick Nikki Haley as U.N. Ambassador]

In South Carolina, there will always be challenges — right now, in Charleston, the fraught trials of Roof and Michael Slager, the white officer charged with murder in the shooting of African-American Walter Scott during a traffic stop. Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, a loyal Trump supporter, will take Haley’s place if she is confirmed, and would be the one to lead a wary peace no matter the outcomes; for now, Haley is asking people to pray.

Her latest promotion proves that she is prepped for the big moments. She has had a few stumbles, and, as all politicians do, changes positions from time to time. But she always seems to escape, shift the narrative in her favor and come out on top, with the high-profile support of folks such as Palin and, belatedly, Trump. It is part savvy, part timing and a bit of luck, always a good thing to have when you’re touted as a leader of tomorrow — or sooner.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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