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What my 2009 interview with Nikki Haley tells me about 2024

Former South Carolina governor will likely be influential in presidential campaign

Nikki Haley during her 2009 interview with Stuart Rothenberg at the Roll Call offices.
Nikki Haley during her 2009 interview with Stuart Rothenberg at the Roll Call offices. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

Corrected 12:07 p.m. | As longtime readers know, I spent decades interviewing candidates for the House and Senate. I also interviewed candidates for governor when they were in Washington to meet with a campaign committee or to do some fundraising.

Most of the interviews took place at the offices of Roll Call, and many of them included Charlie Cook, Amy Walter and Nathan Gonzales, after he joined me at The Rothenberg Political Report (now Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales).

I didn’t save all the notes from those interviews, and my scribbles wouldn’t mean much to many people anyway. But I did come across my notes from a 2009 interview with someone who is preparing to run for president — Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the U.N. I thought you might like a glimpse into that candidate meeting, as well as my assessments of her prospects then and now.

My interview with Haley took place on June 22, 2009, relatively early in her campaign for governor. (The primary was June 8, 2010, and the runoff was June 22.)

Interviews always started off with personal details (date of birth, place of birth, parents’ jobs, education, etc.) before switching to work history, past political experience, the details of the race, overall fundamentals of the primary and/or general election, and the candidate’s position on issues.

I liked Haley. She was well spoken, seemed smart and was extremely personable. Moreover, a conservative woman of color who was running for governor of South Carolina was, well, noteworthy.

A few things struck me about Haley (both from my memories and my notes).

First, she based her candidacy almost entirely on her close relationship with popular GOP Gov. Mark Sanford.

“The governor has been a great supporter of mine, as I have been of him,” Haley told me. She added that Sanford would formally endorse her in the primary.

That seemed a valuable connection until Sanford essentially disappeared from June 18 to June 24. He had told his staff that he would be hiking the Appalachian Trail. When he “returned,” just days after my interview with Haley, the married Sanford acknowledged he was having an affair with a woman in Argentina.  

When the Sanford news broke, I remember thinking it would sink Haley’s candidacy. But Haley never gave up, and she came back from that disaster to win the nomination and general election with the help of an endorsement from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. 

Haley’s ability to win the Republican nomination after Sanford’s political implosion says something about her political toughness and her own appeal. (Sanford was censured by the South Carolina House but remained in office until the end of his term; he subsequently won a 2013 special election to the U.S. House and served until 2019.)

Second, Haley described herself to me as “a hard-core conservative.” She had been endorsed by Mitt Romney, but she also noted her “A” ratings from the National Rifle Association, the Club for Growth, and the South Carolina Family Association. 

Her self-identification was interesting. I think many people assumed that Haley was — and is — a pragmatist. Maybe that is simply because she is a woman of color or because she is so poised. But if you look at her positions when she was in the South Carolina House, she indeed was a “hard-core conservative” on issues like taxes, immigration and abortion. That is why she was endorsed by the Republican Liberty Caucus, a libertarian group.

When Sen. Jim DeMint resigned in 2013 to take a job at the Heritage Foundation, Haley appointed then-Rep. Tim Scott to fill the Senate seat. Scott, the first Black Republican elected to the South Carolina Legislature since Reconstruction, was a smart choice that was widely well-received. (And yes, Scott is mentioned as a possible presidential hopeful in 2024.)

Third, Haley described herself as a campaigner this way: “I’m a fundraising machine. I love to raise money. You can’t out-campaign me. I know my issues.”

I have been writing about candidates and campaigns for many years, and when a candidate says he or she “loves” raising money, it always gets my attention. Most candidates hate that part of the job, but she knew how important it was in a campaign, and she clearly felt prepared for the fight.

Some conservatives were pleased to be able to vote for a woman in general and a woman of color in particular. Many thought her candidacy rebutted criticism that Republicans are racists.

Haley has been successful electorally.

She won state legislative races in 2004, 2006 and 2008, and in 2010 won a crowded race for the GOP nomination for governor against then-state Attorney General Henry McMaster (the current governor), then-Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer (the current lieutenant governor) and then-Rep. Gresham Barrett.

Haley had a relatively close race that November, beating Vincent Sheheen, the Democratic nominee, by 3.5 percentage points. She was reelected easily in 2014, defeating Sheheen again by more than 14 points.

So, having watched Haley all these years, what do I think of her prospects in 2024?

I expect she will be an energetic and talented campaigner in the GOP presidential contest.

She has tried to have it both ways on Donald Trump, which is risky, given the likely crowded field that includes the former president (who appointed her to be U.N. ambassador). Pro-Trump folks in the party may look for someone who has been more combative and nastier, but it’s a mistake to view Haley as a “Larry Hogan Republican.” She isn’t a moderate running in the “moderate lane.”

Haley has plenty of assets. But Trump has his core of supporters, and some higher profile hopefuls — from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to former Vice President Mike Pence — may make it difficult for her to break through during the fight for the nomination.

She has added national security credentials over the years (such as her stint at the U.N.), and her long-time strategist and adviser, Jon Lerner, has foreign policy experience, including a stint as her deputy at the U.N., in addition to being an accomplished pollster and campaign ad maker.

Haley easily could get lost in a crowded race, the way former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal did in 2016. Can she raise enough money? Can she convince the media, party insiders and primary voters that she is tough enough to be president? 

She’ll need to run a strong campaign and perform well on the stump and in debates. But Haley is an obvious choice as a VP running mate should Republicans nominate a white man like Trump or DeSantis (or Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin or former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo), and that alone is reason to keep an eye on her in 2023 and 2024.

The photographer credit was corrected.

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