Chris Keane/Getty Images
South Carolina Gov.-elect Nikki Haley speaks to voters at Hudson's Smokehouse on Nov. 3 in Lexington.
Chris Keane/Getty Images
More than half of all states chose new governors this month, including South Carolina, where Republican Gov.-elect Nikki Haley is a rising conservative star.
The people who love Haley's politics and those who don't often agree on at least one thing. As South Carolina resident Elizabeth Gressette puts it: "Who could be worse than Gov. Sanford?"
Many residents say they are happy to see Republican Gov. Mark Sanford go, and not just because they are embarrassed by his infidelity.
Long before he made that fateful trip to the "Appalachian Trail" (in reality, jetting off to see his mistress in Argentina), Sanford's priorities of restructuring government and restricting spending were going nowhere.
'Mark Sanford In A Dress'?
"Mark Sanford appeared to enjoy antagonizing the Legislature," says Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon. He recalls the time Sanford took two squealing pigs — nicknamed Pork and Barrel — into the Statehouse to show his disdain for the Republican Legislature's budget.
He used his veto pen often — only to be quickly overturned by lawmakers. Sanford actually sued the Legislature to make it reject federal stimulus money. He lost that fight, too. And years ago, Sanford started grooming Haley to replace him when his two terms were up.
"So Nikki Haley comes in," Huffmon says, and the reaction was: " 'Oh, it'll be Mark Sanford in a dress.' "
Haley disputed that concern from the outset, but she did echo Sanford's disdain for the Republican-controlled state Legislature:
"We were settling for a Republican House, a Republican Senate and a Republican governor. I won't stop until we get a conservative House, a conservative Senate and a conservative governor!"
In her victory speech, Haley thanked Sanford for his hard work, which sent a shiver down the spines of state lawmakers.
Republican House budget leader Dan Cooper, a longtime Sanford foe who disagreed often with Haley during her six years in the Legislature, took a cautious tone when speaking about the new governor.
"I guess we're in the, what they call the 'honeymoon phase,' you know. We just don't know what we don't know yet about each other, so we'll have to wait and see," he said.
'All About Communication'
Detractors call Haley abrasive and ambitious. She's only 38, and some say she "jumped the line" in front of more established Republicans in running for governor. She clobbered three of them in the party primary. Allegations that she'd had extramarital affairs only galvanized her supporters.
One of Haley's close allies, Republican State Rep. Nathan Ballentine, says having enemies brings out her political strengths. "It makes her focused, and she's determined," he said. "If she's got a mission and task, she's going to get it accomplished, you know, hell or high water. And she can also be very convincing."
Haley is mostly avoiding one-on-one interviews these days, opting for short press conferences, including one earlier this week. Her tone has changed a little.
The budget is likely to be Haley's biggest battle when she takes office in January. The state's funding gap could reach $1 billion. But Haley says she will help lawmakers with the budget, rather than stand back and wave her veto pen like Sanford did.
"I think it's all about communication," she said. "It is about me giving them guidance — giving them leadership on what the problems are and then giving them leadership on what the solutions are. It's really not up to me to judge how Gov. Sanford did. It's very much about how Gov. Haley's going to handle it."
Republican legislative leaders say it's a good sign that shortly after Haley won, she sat down with them to see where her priorities overlap with the party establishment she attacked so harshly during her campaign.