When South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) gives the response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address on Tuesday, she’ll be doing so as a popular, young, rising female star in the Republican Party with potentially loftier goals.
Her signature moment was her decision to remove the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina state-capitol grounds after Dylann Roof allegedly killed nine black Charleston churchgoers in June. Haley’s move went against the grain of traditional Southern conservative politics.
“It came down to one simple thing,” she told The New York Times at the time. “I couldn’t look my son or daughter in the face and justify that flag flying anymore.”
Of the decision to lower the flag, The Times wrote it “was a moment of political and racial drama, and a signature moment for Ms. Haley, who blended the traditional values of the South — faith, family, empathy — into a powerful call for taking down the flag as a gesture of unity, healing and renewal.”
Tucker Eskew, a veteran of South Carolina politics, who once served in the George W. Bush White House as director of the Office of Media Affairs, told Business Insider that it’s been fascinating to see Haley’s growth as a leader from when he first met her in 2008, when she was still a state legislator.
“That’s not a skill, that’s not even an attribute, it is a byproduct of personal values that are tested in really serious ways,” he said. “And it doesn’t meant you always get grace out of the values being tested, but she bears her [values] … with a steadiness and a sense of purpose that I think is very appealing.”
Something Haley is doing appears to be working out of her: Public Policy Polling found in November that Haley, the youngest US governor at 43 years old, received a 56% job-approval rating, compared to just a 28% disapproval rating. The pollster noted that even among Democrats, Haley had a 40% job-approval number.
But the political scene wasn’t always quite so rosy for Haley.
She was born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa to immigrants who relocated to Bamberg, South Carolina, from India’s Punjab state. Haley and her sister once entered a “Little Miss Bamberg” pageant, in which it was tradition to crown a white and a black queen, The Times reported. But since the judges decided the Haley and her sister didn’t fit either category, they were kicked out of the competition.
Haley was first elected to the South Carolina State House in 2004 and just five years later, she was running for governor and won the endorsement of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), who was then a prominent Republican star after her unsuccessful bid for vice president.
Haley’s gubernatorial campaign was fairly rocky at times. Bloomberg Politics noted that one state lawmaker called her a “raghead,” and that “campaign fliers compared a ‘white male/Christian/business owner’ to an ‘Indian female/Buddhist/housekeeper.'”
And just days after receiving the Palin endorsement, Haley — who has been married since 1996 and has two children — faced allegations that she had extramarital affairs. She strongly denied those claims.
She weathered that storm amid and won the election, becoming the youngest governor in South Carolina history at just 38, as well as the first female and first minority governor in Palmetto State history.
But although she was making a name for herself outside of South Carolina, she wasn’t very popular back in her home state. Her approval ratings floated around the mid-30s early in her first term.
“I think it was tough for her being the first female governor,” State Sen. Katrina Shealy (R) told NBC News. “I think people weren’t ready for that.”
As NBC noted, Haley was investigated for an ethical violation that went to the state’s Supreme Court. She was also criticised for speaking at the 2012 Republican National Convention as her state was hit by Hurricane Isaac. And the state’s Department of Revenue was breached, leading to more than 6 million Social Security numbers belonging to South Carolinians being stolen.
“She received a lot of criticism for a slow response,” Alissa Warters, political science professor at Francis Marion University, told NBC.”That’s when you saw the national party say, OK, maybe not.”
Her turnaround in popularity began with strengthening her state’s economy, particularly the job market, where unemployment hit a 13-year low in 2014. And the decision surrounding the removal of the Confederate flag catapulted her right back into the national discussion last year.
“To be a minority female governor leading this charge, I don’t look at the boxes that I am,” Haley said at the funeral of one of the victims of the Charleston shooting.
“I look at the fact that I’m a wife and a mother and a governor who loves this state, that refuses to let it break and refuses to let it fall apart over a flag,” she continued. “This flag didn’t cause those nine murders, but the murderer used this flag with him as hate to do it. And this isn’t an issue of mental illness, this is an issue of hate.”
Eskew, who once prepared a similar speech for former South Carolina Gov. Carroll Campbell, said Haley being selected to give the Obama response is a great opportunity, but it shouldn’t be overplayed.
“It’s one moment in a long series of moments for Gov. Haley,” he said. “There are people who have done very well at these and gone to great heights. There are others who have done not so well and have had problems in their political career. But you can’t always tie the success or failure in a career to a speech like this.”
And the speech comes with risks. Former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) was widely mocked for his State of the Union response, which many people compared to Kenneth Parcell, a character from the Tina Fey comedy “30 Rock.” Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Florida) is still teased — mostly by Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump — for drinking an excessive amount of water during his State of the Union response.
But it’s no secret that responding to a president’s big address has opened doors for some on the national stage. Eskew said he thought she would make a great vice-presidential candidate or White House cabinet member.
“She’s deserving of very careful consideration by our ultimate nominee,” he said.
For her part, Haley isn’t giving many hints as to what she’ll cover in her speech. However, she did say in a press conference that it would not be a direct response to the president’s speech, but an address to the country on important issues. She said she isn’t one to try and compete against the president for attention.
“I always go back to that five-year-old Indian girl who lived in Bamburg that just wondered what was out there,” she said. “And to be able to think that I will now have the ability to address the country is really humbling.”
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