South Carolina state Rep. Nikki Haley today clinched the Republican nomination in the race to succeed outgoing Gov. Mark Sanford, making her the state's first GOP woman and Indian-American nominee for governor.
Unofficial results showed voters endorsed Haley over U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett by a substantial margin in the runoff election, which was required after Haley narrowly missed capturing the required majority vote to win the race outright on June 8. She now faces Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen in November.
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Haley, a three-term state representative who has been viewed as the hand-picked heir to Sanford, caught many observers by surprise when she surged ahead in the polls last month, surpassing early front-runners Barrett, state Attorney General Henry McMaster, and Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer.
Pundits credited the notable endorsements of tea party groups, former state first lady Jenny Sanford, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin with legitimizing her candidacy in the face of the state's male-dominated political establishment.
Haley's high-profile rise also captured national attention after the 38-year-old married mother of two faced two separate, unsubstantiated allegations of marital infidelity and became the target of a racial slur. One South Carolina state senator called her a "raghead."
Conservative political blogger Will Folks leveled the first sex allegation late last month, saying he had an "inappropriate physical relationship with Haley" in 2007. Ten days later, Larry Marchant, a paid consultant to Lt. Gov. Bauer, alleged that he'd had a one-night stand with Haley in 2008 but could not provide proof to back up the claim.
Haley has decried the sex allegations as blatant, political attacks.
"I've been absolutely faithful to my husband for 13 years," she said during a televised debate in Charleston before the primary. "This is just disgusting politics."
Haley later promised in a radio interview on Columbia's WVOC that she would resign from office if any of the charges were ever proven.
"If something were to come out that validates the claims that have been made against you ... would you resign as governor because basically the way you've handled it has been an absolute, 100 percent denial?" the host asked Haley.
"Yes," Haley replied.
Haley Could Face Tough Challenge from Democrat Sheheen
While the salacious allegations did not derail Haley's campaign in the first round primary -- where she won 49 percent of the vote to Barrett's 22 percent -- political analysts say voters' overall perception of her candidacy will matter in the campaign against Sheheen.
Outgoing Gov. Mark Sanford sparked intense political drama and widespread condemnation across the state and within his own party after he confessed to an extramarital affair with an Argentine woman last year. The allegations surrounding Haley may give some voters pause.
"Some people think where there's smoke, there's fire," said Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon of the rumors of Haley's infidelity. "Shenanigans tend to turn some voters off."
Haley may also have to convince voters that her candidacy does not represent a lockstep continuation of the policies and practices of Sanford, who is not running for reelection because of state term limits and whose tenure has been marked by bitter disagreements with the general assembly and legislative gridlock.
"Haley has voted in keeping with Sanford's priorities as he's sparred with the General Assembly," said University of South Carolina political scientist Mark Tompkins. "She says she is going to try and work with the General Assembly, but if Haley doesn't persuade folks that she's not Sanford's third term, the politically influential business community might abandon her for Sheheen."
Still, Tompkins said, Haley remains widely popular in the state, having emerged as a disciplined candidate in the primary campaign.
"She is a blank slate on which a lot of people are writing their hopes for the future of the state," he said. But, some voters may opt for the "known quantity" Democratic moderate Sheheen who is "well known and well liked," Tompkins said.
"If Vincent Sheheen can use a lot of money to get his name recognition up, he will really seem as a young, fresh face," Huffmon said, adding that since "the Republican brand will have the taint of scandal, the race for November will be more competitive than people think it is."