South Carolina's hip, young governor has a compelling story. Nikki Haley is the state's first female and minority chief executive, a conservative suburbanite in spike heels with a Dixie drawl.
This week she announced she'll run for a second term, setting up a likely rematch with Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, who she narrowly edged out in 2010. But there is a subtext to this election in South Carolina beyond the governor's mansion that didn't haunt the race three years ago. If Haley wins, it will immediately train a spotlight on a glaring question for 2016: What if she decides to run for president?
In the lead-up to 2012, the name of the fresh-faced conservative daughter of Sikh immigrants from India graced many a vice-presidential short list. Her biographical narrative and penchant for national press coverage elevated her to the pundit-class status of Republican to Watch.
It's no secret in this early presidential primary state that its Republican governor has outsized ambitions. Frequent out-of-state fundraising trips and appearances on Fox News, crisscrossing the nation in support of presidential candidates, penning a memoir during her first term, and headlining big-ticket speeches at Republican events all have led Democrats here to dub her "National Nikki."
"Every governor we’ve had since Carroll Campbell has had national aspirations, but with her it’s more naked and obvious," Brad Warthen, a former columnist for The State newspaper, told me for a profile I wrote about Haley back in 2011. More recently the women's magazine Marie Claire asked in a headline last January: "Will Nikki Haley be our First Female President?"
"So far, nothing has stopped the political aspirations of the Republican governor of South Carolina—not racism, not sexism, not her youth," wrote the magazine at the time. "There's even talk of her making it to the nation's top office."
But regardless of how far she gets if she were to pull the trigger, her decision could have a drastic impact on South Carolina's relevance in the presidential campaign process. Long viewed as a must-win early primary on the path to nomination, no Republican had gone on to win the national party's nod without first winning South Carolina since Ronald Reagan. That changed in 2012, however, dinging its long status as a bellwether. Last year Newt Gingrich wiped away 30 years of tradition when voters here showed their taste for a more radical strain of conservatism by choosing him over the eventual nominee Mitt Romney.
During the next presidential cycle, something potentially more detrimental to the state's coveted role could take place. If a native daughter were to end up on the Palmetto State primary ticket in 2016, it's possible other candidates might just skip South Carolina completely for more fertile electoral soil in Florida or elsewhere.
"If you have a favorite son running, it would minimize the impact of the primary," says Katon Dawson, a former chairman of the state GOP and an advisor to past presidential campaigns here. Though he said it's not too early to talk about 2016 and what events might impact South Carolina's role, until he hears independently from anyone here that they're running for president he won't have any concern for what it might mean for the primary.
Republicans in South Carolina have already felt the incipient rumblings of a potential 2016 field inside the state's borders. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio gave the keynote address to the GOP's largest in-state fundraising dinner last year; Texas Sen. Ted Cruz did the same in May. Meanwhile, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul was recently down here testing the waters and meeting with influential Republicans.
Lately, the Democratic side of 2016 talk has focused on Hillary Clinton and the effects her decision to run or not will have on other potential candidates. "She’s freezing the field," former DNC chairman Howard Dean told Politico recently. "And there are a bunch of people out there [who might run otherwise]." While it might not be showing up in many on-the-record remarks in the press three years out from a presidential campaign cycle, an undercurrent to 2016 talk in South Carolina is whether an entrance by Haley might freeze the traditional primary here.
"It does complicate things," says Warren Tompkins, a longtime Republican consultant who's advised multiple presidential campaigns in the Palmetto State, about the prospect of a South Carolinian running. "But the complication is how serious the efforts are and whether people think they could play well here or not."
Tompkins was the director of the state GOP in 1984 when the party opted not to hold a presidential primary here. That was when Ronald Reagan was running for re-election. "We weren't going to put on a primary for a bunch of nuts to run against him," Tompkins said. "If they were going to run against Reagan, they were going to do it somewhere else."
That raises the question: Should Haley win her re-election and start showing very serious signals that she's interested in the White House, would South Carolina end up keeping its traditional primary if her name is on the ticket?
"We've never had to deal with it," Tompkins says about what might occur should a credible South Carolina pol get in the ring.
Should it take place, though, an in-state candidate running for president could seriously affect the financial impact a big presidential primary brings to the state.
"It's always been my opinion that if that were to happen candidates would cede the state … putting the primary out of play and of course impacting spending," says Sunny Phillips, a super-connected longtime Republican fundraiser in South Carolina who has raised money for presidential campaigns, the state GOP, and virtually everything in between.
Every four years, Republicans tout the financial fortunes that pour into South Carolina as a result of the big primary. In 2012, campaigns and political groups spent $13.2 million on TV ads in South Carolina, mostly with out-of-state dollars, according to a release from GOP House Speaker Bobby Harrell. The Myrtle Beach region alone saw $14 million in economic impact when the area hosted a debate. South Carolina held five such debates throughout the state last year.
For that money to actually dry up, any South Carolinian who ran would have to be credible and popular enough in the state to frighten off other rivals.
"Nikki would be pretty popular," Phillips said.
For Democrats, the prospect of a Haley presidential candidacy isn't something some are willing to hypothesize about because doing so probably isn't beneficial to Democrats. Haley must win her re-election campaign to be a serious contender and Democrats are obviously hoping her likely rematch with Sheheen will go their way. On one hand, such talk about a potential presidential campaign makes Haley look credible, more serious, and, of course, focuses more national attention on the governor. The flip side is that it could reinforce a narrative Democrats in South Carolina have pushed for years and fuel further criticism about opportunism and her putting more energy into personal ambitions than bettering the state.
Last month, Politico published a story titled "What if Hillary Clinton Passes on 2016?," and quoted a Democratic operative saying, "There is no Plan B."
Plug Nikki Haley's name into that question and the answer appears simpler.
Says Tompkins with a chuckle about such a comparison, "If she takes a pass, there will definitely be a Republican primary here."