Nikki Haley's Pursuit of the Presidency | This Week in South Carolina

On a special This Week in South Carolina, we travel to Charleston for former Governor Nikki Haley’s presidential announcement. And a look back at how she got to this point and what it means for South Carolina.




Nikki Haley: For a strong America, for a proud America, I am running for President of the United States of America.

Gavin Jackson: We're in Charleston, where former Governor Nikki Haley announced she's jumping into the 2024 presidential race. Welcome to this Week in South Carolina's Special Report. I'm Gavin Jackson here in Charleston. And before we get to the big news of the governor and former ambassador, we take a look back at how we got here. Nikki Haley was born and brought up Nimarata Nikki Randhawa in the Midlands hamlet of Bamberg to Indian immigrants. Her father taught at Voorhees College for 30 years, and she grew up working the books at her mother's clothing company. Haley a brown girl growing up in a black and white world as she describes it, learned life lessons about race, discrimination and acceptance from an early age, lessons she's carried with her over her 51 years. She attended and graduated from Clemson University, where she met her husband Michael, the first weekend of her freshman year. The two started their family in Lexington County with her daughter Rena and son Nalin. Haley was inspired to run for office after hearing Hillary Clinton speak at an event in Greenville and decided to challenge a 30 year incumbent State Representative, Larry Koon for his seat, and she beat him in a runoff in 2004. From there, Haley was on her way up the ranks as a House lawmaker even becoming majority whip until she challenged the status quo by pushing for greater transparency with the simple act of roll call votes on the record, which soon had her on the outs with her party. The fallout from her legislative independent streak and push for reforms led to another life lesson of fighting for what is right, despite the cost, because it soon translated into a bigger win, thanks to a confluence of support from fellow disruptor, then Governor Mark Sanford, who pushed her to run as his successor, while the growing tea party movement raged and former vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin's endorsement propelled her into the runoff, despite a daunting primary field of seasoned politicians.

Fmr. Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK): So I figured, yeah, let me swing by and give a shout out to a strong pro-family, pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, pro-development, conservative reformer, your next governor, Nikki Haley. (crowd applause)

George Stephanopoulos, ABC News: Where Nikki Haley wasn't well known when the governor's race began, has beaten out the lieutenant governor, the attorney general and a four term member of Congress to take a big lead into the runoff and State Representative, Nikki Haley joins us now. Congratulations on last night, Representative Haley. Is that what you saw last night, voters venting their frustration?

Fmr. Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC): You know, I think what we saw was the fact that voters want elected officials who remember who it is they work for. They want someone that understands the value of the dollar. They are tired of backroom deals. They want to make sure there's more transparency and accountability and it certainly showed in South Carolina and I think we're going to continue to see it show across the country.

George Stephanopoulos, ABC News: You did face a very, very tough campaign and I know South Carolina has a reputation for that as John Carr reported two men who had some connections to rival campaigns said they had affairs with you and last night the man you face in the runoff, Congressman Barrett said character is not one of the things that matters, it's the only thing that matters. Do you expect more incoming during the runoff?

Fmr. Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC): You know, I mean, the one thing we noticed was, we were "Nikki Who" about six weeks ago and then all of a sudden it showed we had a double digit lead in the polls and then we had everything but the kitchen sink thrown at us and our opponents got together they threw as much distractions as they could, but we stayed very determined. All it did was make us more focused on making sure the voice of the people were heard.

Gavin Jackson: She won the primary and went on to defeat then Democratic State Senator Vincent Sheheen in the election, with her one time primary opponent and future Lieutenant Governor, Henry McMaster introducing her after becoming the first woman and minority governor of South Carolina on election night 2010.

Gov. Henry McMaster (R-SC): I'll tell you, we are red hot. We are getting ready to show what South Carolina can do, and our new leader is Nikki Haley. (crowd applause)

Gavin Jackson: Two months later on inauguration day, she walked down the Statehouse steps with their predecessor, Governor Sanford. As she began an administration focused on turning the page, navigating the fallout of the great recession by growing the state's economy, and manufacturing base one job at a time.

Fmr. Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC): Today, our state and nation face difficult times. Far too many of our fellow citizens are without a job. Our economy is not growing as fast as it should. And our state budget has the largest shortfall ever. But when I survey this troubled landscape, I am not discouraged. We know that tough times can produce some of the best decisions and it is our duty to make this time of challenge into the opportunity it can be to turn our state around.

Gavin Jackson: During her second inaugural address in 2015. Haley acknowledged the initial concerns those had of her first term, especially as the youngest governor in the country,

Fmr. Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC): I am not unaware that four years ago when I spoke for the first time as governor, there was some skepticism. It was not unfounded. I was young. I was unknown. And I was different. But I knew in my heart then, as I know now, what South Carolina could be. We are a fiercely proud state, a state with a history as rich as it is complicated, a state where the intensity of our individualism is surpassed only by the shared joy we draw from being collectively South Carolinians.

Gavin Jackson: While her first term was about fixing South Carolina. Her second term was soon about holding the state together through natural disasters, the shooting of Walter Scott, and the massacre of nine black parishioners at the hands of a white man at Mother Emanuel AME. Church in Charleston on June 17 2015, an event that nearly broke Haley.

Fmr. Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC): This is Bible study. You know, this is what so many South Carolinians do every Wednesday night. And so the shock of something like this happening, in the most sacred of places was hard to stomach. What was hard for me was the heartbreak of what had happened. And how do you heal a state in a way that children aren't scared to go to church? And how do you heal a state in a way that that's the place we go to feel safe? And when you suddenly realize that a place like that is no longer safe, you want to wrap your arms around the state and protect them, but there was no way not to grieve. (crowd applause)

Gavin Jackson: The power of the horrific event, the way the shooter idealized the Confederate battle flag and the grace victims' families showed, led Haley to call for the downing of the controversial symbol that had been flying out front of the Statehouse since 2000.

Fmr. Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC): So you know, it's hard for us to look at what is happening today, and not think back to 22 days ago. It seems like so long ago, because the grieving has been so hard. But at the same time, we've all been struck by what was a tragedy that we didn't think we would ever encounter. Nine amazing people that forever changed South Carolina's history.

Gavin Jackson: Just a day before the horrific shooting in Charleston, the New York real estate mogul, turned Republican firebrand Donald Trump announced his bid for the 2016 presidential election. While his controversial anouncement created waves worldwide, the focus in South Carolina was on healing the state. Haley herself attended all nine funerals of those who were slain. It all took a toll, weight loss, post traumatic stress, the most challenging time of her life. But even as Trump's rhetoric, which included racial dog whistles, as well as undertones of hate and xenophobia, began registering with bigger and bigger crowds, including in early voting, South Carolina, Haley's lieutenant governor took note of the growing dissatisfaction that Trump had tapped into and became the first statewide official in the nation to endorse Trump. A savvy move that would pay Henry McMaster dividends and make him Haley's successor in early 2017.

Gov. Henry McMaster (R-SC): To paraphrase one of the poets of our time, Buffalo Springfield. (audience laughs) There's something happening here. (audience cheers) What it is precisely clear. We are going to make America great again with Donald Trump. Thank you, and God bless you.

Gavin Jackson: But Haley couldn't stomach the Trump rhetoric and the fervor it stoked and alluded to as much when she delivered the Republican response to President Barack Obama's 2016 State of the Union address.

Fmr. Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC): During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation. No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country. At the same time, that does not mean we just flat out open our borders. We can't do that. We cannot continue to allow immigrants to come here illegally.

Gavin Jackson: Haley and Senator Tim Scott, whom she appointed to fulfill Jim DeMint's remaining term in 2012, ended up backing Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a snub to former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who had been close with Haley early in her career, but was flailing in polls and eventually came in fourth in South Carolina's primary. Even Rubio narrowly won second place over Senator Ted Cruz. They were both 10 points behind Trump

Fmr. Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC): South Carolina went through a terrible tragedy last year. And the KKK came to South Carolina from out of state to protest on our Statehouse grounds. (audience jeers) We saw and looked at true hate in the eyes last year in Charleston. I will not stop until we fight a man that chooses not to disavow the KKK. That is not a part of our party. That's not who we want as president. We will not allow that in our country. (audience applause)

Wolf Blitzer, CNN: Right now a historic moment, we can now project the winner of the presidential race. CNN projects, Donald Trump wins the presidency.

Gavin Jackson: Despite being a reluctant Trump supporter, his 2016 win created a silver lining that no one expected, Nikki Haley's third act. this time, giving the state chief executive, experience on the international stage as the ambassador to the United Nations. A thank you from Trump to clear the way for McMaster to finally become governor. With Haley moving up. Before she was confirmed by the US Senate. She gave her seventh and final State of the State address where she recalled some of the important and difficult moments of her tenure.

Fmr. Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC): I will remember the willingness of the people in this room to step into someone else's shoes, find genuine understanding, remove a divisive symbol of an oppressive past and move South Carolina forward. (Audience applause)

Gavin Jackson: Days later and moments after securing enough votes in the Senate, Haley resigned and watched on as her Lieutenant Governor Henry McMaster became the 117th governor. And with it she headed to New York. She brought years of South Carolina political grit with her to the international stage and through an initial punch on her first day.

Fmr. Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC): And the way that we'll show value is to show our strength, show our voice, have the backs of our allies and make sure that our allies have our back as well. For those that don't have our back, we're taking names

Gavin Jackson: From facing off against North Korea, Russia, China and others. Haley fell into a groove and began trying to reform an institution which America heavily funds, moving the embassy to Jerusalem fighting North Korea on missile testing, and getting an arms embargo passed against the South Sudan or winds. But blasting Syria for gassing its own people and chastising foes for not supporting a resolution condemning Bashar Al Assad's regime was a defining moment. Removing the United States from the Human Rights Council was also a big win for Haley who saw the organization as ineffective considering the countries and regimes represented in the group.

Fmr. Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC): This step is not a retreat from human rights commitments. On the contrary, we take this step because our commitment does not allow us to remain a part of a hypocritical and self serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights.

Gavin Jackson: While fighting in New York, she still had to deal with the turmoil of the unorthodox Trump administration. However, as a cabinet member and part of the National Security Council, she was always able to cut through to reach Trump if she needed to. Haley who had outlasted others in the shaky first years of the Trump administration, including the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, both who were ousted in the spring of 2018, was now feeling the squeeze of their replacements, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton respectively, who sought to clamp down any influence or input by Haley, Contributing factors that led to her decision to bow out at the end of the year, which she surprised Trump with in an October 2018 announcement.

Fmr. Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC): I think you have to be selfless enough to know when you step aside and allow someone else to do the job. So thank you, Mr. President. It's been an honor of a lifetime. And I will say this, for all of you that are going to ask about 2020. No, I'm not running for 2020. I can promise you what I'll be doing is campaigning for this one. So, I look forward to supporting the President in the next elections.

Gavin Jackson: Haley became a private citizen for the first time in 14 years in January 2019. And despite rumors that she was preparing to replace Vice President Mike Pence, she wrote two books, briefly joined the Boeing Board of Directors gave high dollar speeches and lived a relatively un- scheduled life with her family. She watched her party lose the White House in 2020, building on the losses of the 2018 midterms. She also worked to support a red wave that didn't materialize in the 2022 midterms. The need to take the country in another direction is something she has spoken recently about.

Fmr. Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC): But when you're looking at a run for president, you look at two things you first look at does the current situation, push for new leadership? The second question is, am I that person that could be that new leader? Yes, we need to go in a new direction. And can I be that leader? Yes, I think I can be that leader.

Gavin Jackson: Now moments ago, Nikki Haley made her historic announcement here in Charleston and we were here also so let's take a look at what she had to say.

Fmr. Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC): But there's something else that's eating away at our national core. On Biden and Harris' watch, a self loathing has swept our country. It's in the classroom, the boardroom and the back rooms of government. Every day we're told America is flawed, rotten and full of hate. Joe and Kamala even say America's racist. Nothing could be further from the truth. (audience applauds) The American people know better. My immigrant parents know better, and take it from me, the first minority female governor in history, America is not a racist country. (audience applause) Strengthening America, believing once again in America is the only way to defend ourselves from those who want to destroy us. When America's distracted, the world is less safe. And today our enemies think that the American era has passed. They're wrong. America is not past our prime. It's just that our politicians are past theirs. (audience cheers loudly) We'll stand with our allies from Israel to Ukraine and stand up to our enemies in Iran and Russia. (audience applause) And in the America, I see, Communist China won't just lose. Like the Soviet Union before, Communist China will end up on the ash heap of history. (audience cheers) Unity does not come from faint hearts or watered down compromises. (audience applause) That just leaves everyone wanting more. Real national unity comes from boldly proclaiming our national purpose and persuading opponents to join us. My purpose is to save our country from the downward spiral of socialism and defeatism, I aim to move America upward toward freedom and strength. I'll take this message far and wide in the days ahead. And I have a particular message for my fellow Republicans. We've lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. Our cause is right, but we have failed to win the confidence of a majority of Americans. Well, that ends today. (audience cheers loudly)

Gavin Jackson: Now, to better understand the significance of this announcement, I sat down with Gibbs Knotts on the College of Charleston campus, where he's the Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Gibbs, thanks for joining me.

Dean Gibbs Knotts, College of Charleston: Great to be here, Gavin.

Gavin Jackson: So this has been a big announcement years in the making for Nikki Haley, right now. She was our governor. There's always been rumored speculation around what she's going to do next, and now we know, Gibbs. Tell us what does she have to do to win this nomination to win the White House?

Dean Gibbs Knotts, College of Charleston: Yeah, I mean, this is the worst kept secret in America. We all felt like she had presidential ambitions. And you know, I think she's got to figure out what her lane is. Right now, she's pretty low in the national poll, but you know, she's just kicking off her campaign. And it's definitely a mistake to underestimate Nikki Haley. She's never lost an election. She has executive experience. But she also has experience in the international arena by working in the United Nations. And so again, somebody who's a very formidable a candidate, and somebody to be taken very seriously for 2024.

Gavin Jackson: When we talked about that Gibbs we talk about this field. She's now the second person to jump in this field at this point, in February 2023. It's a long way to next year when we see these primaries. What does she have to do right now with Donald Trump? I mean, she's gonna be fighting with him a good bit. I'm sure there might be some nicknames. There might be some back and forth. How does that - how does she have to mesh that?

Dean Gibbs Knotts, College of Charleston: Yeah, I mean, she's been somebody who, over the course of her career has been able to kind of get the favor of Trump, but also reach out and get traditional Republican voters and support for them as well. It's not every candidate can't do that. And so obviously, there's going to be a feud now because she's challenging him, and she said she ultimately wouldn't run if he was going to run. But I do think like, She's tough. I suspect she'll probably use some humor. I think she'll probably pull on some, you know, pull some southern good southern phrases out there, like bless your heart or something like that to really try to beat back Trump. I mean, It was no one was really able to sort of survive in 2016. He was very effective at one by one, whether it was lying Ted Cruz or little Marco Rubio, but, but I suspect she's going to be it's going to be harder to do that to her, and she's extremely tough and I think she'll be able to fight back.

Gavin Jackson: Gibbs you saw in 2016, we were just talking about that you, you and Jordan Ragusa, your counterpart have written the primary book on South Carolina in the primaries. But we saw in 2016, like you're saying just how difficult it was for people to break out. She did back Marco Rubio back then.

Dean Gibbs Knotts, College of Charleston: Right.

Gavin Jackson: So does that mean that she's gonna have a tough time kind of doing what he did as well getting above that 22% When Trump had a solid 30 something.

Dean Gibbs Knotts, College of Charleston: I think a lot of it depends on how many people run if it is a field with 10 people. Trump's support is just so strong amongst his core group that I do think it's going to be hard for, for anybody to beat Trump, if a lot of candidates but if she's able to, if folks drop out sooner, if she's able to go head to head with Trump. I mean, I think she has a really good chance. Of course, it's DeSantis floating around figuring out what he's going to do. But look, Nikki Haley's got a great resume. She's a very compelling candidate. I think she's going to be able to raise money. And I think she's got a lot of experience, I think she's going to be able to, you know, be really impressive on those debate stages, as well.

Gavin Jackson: Yeah, and raising money, getting staffed up, all that stuff is important too, right now. And it can be more difficult for other people like Senator Tim Scott jumps in that race too. He has a lot of money, too. So it really is kind of a big fight right now to kind of keep things moving, keep that name out there keep money coming in. What else does she have to do? What other advantage does she have?

Dean Gibbs Knotts, College of Charleston: I mean, I think she's got to be able to build her team and being a little bit early like this gives her an opportunity to, I think, to build her team and meet with donors before other people jump in. But yeah, look, she's able to expand, I think the people who vote Republican, I mean, that's one of her big strengths is that she's going to be able to kind of build the party and make it a little bit bigger. She's able to, I think, be attractive an attractive candidate to suburban women, a group that have kind of shifted a little bit and been more likely to support the Democrats in the last few presidential election cycles. And so, you know, I think she's a very, very compelling general election candidate, just figuring out her lane on the primary is going to be one of her biggest challenges.

Gavin Jackson: Yeah, it's because it is a different Republican Party right now. It was different back in 2016. It's even more different now. It's kind of hard to understand the fractured nature of it all, too. So does she have that lane? Is that it? Does she need to be a moderate voice? Does she need to be more extreme voice?

Dean Gibbs Knotts, College of Charleston: I suspect she'll probably kind of try to play to both sides a little bit. I mean, I do think, you know, she governed kind of, you know, as somebody who, you know, wasn't necessarily was a fiscal conservative, but wouldn't get into a bunch of social issues, and things like that. And so, you know, I think just trying to figure out if she goes and meets voters in Iowa, goes to New Hampshire, and of course, travels around here in South Carolina, trying to figure out what her message is, but I think it's going to be a lot on, you know, let's get the economy back. Let's bring strength back to America. Let's sort of figure out our immigration system. I think she'll sort of borrow from some of the previous campaigns and certainly pull some probably take some policies that Trump supported, and try to endorse those as well.

Gavin Jackson: And when you talk about being from the south, you know, like you mentioned, Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis, being in the South as well, possible 2024 candidate, tell us about what folks need to do to win the south, what they might have up their sleeve, like their Southern Heritage, maybe their experience, maybe people that don't really understand how South Carolina, in the primaries work, what should people be looking for? What do these candidates need to do to win the state.

Dean Gibbs Knotts, College of Charleston: So to win South Carolina, on the Republican side, you've got to do well, with evangelical voters, they make up a big portion of the primary of the Republican primary electorate in South Carolina. So certainly being able to speak to people who attend church, who, you know, think about those types of issues. But South Carolina does have a pretty good mix of different types of Republicans. And so you know, we've got some, you know, more business focused Republicans down here in the Charleston area, and in the low country. And so I think being able to kind of talk to all those different groups will be important. I do think having a candidate, we found in our book that having a candidate from the south isn't being from the south is an advantage in the South Carolina primary, just the ability to connect with the voters, you know, understand them from a cultural perspective. I think Haley has that advantage, having grown up in South Carolina, and served in this state for so long.

Gavin Jackson: And then it's also, of course, she has to go to Iowa, she has to go to New Hampshire. She's going there. She's on the road up there right now. Tell us what she needs to do up there and how that's different when it comes to this nominating process and how she needs to appeal to those voters.

Dean Gibbs Knotts, College of Charleston: Yeah, the electorate is different in Iowa and New Hampshire, and a lot of times Gavin, Iowa picks one candidate, New Hampshire picks a different candidate, and then we come in the third slot and kind of serve as that tiebreaker. But yeah, absolutely. There's going to be different things New Hampshire. There's going to be a lot of independents that can come in and vote in the Republican Party and I think that's going to be good for Nikki Haley. Iowa, it tends to be pretty evangelical and a little more conservative than New Hampshire on the Republican side, and so I do think she's going to have to figure out a way to appeal to two sort of different electorates. But you know, it can be done, I'll be curious to see, does she just decide - sometimes candidates will decide, I'm better off in Iowa, that's where I'm going to spend my time, or really the New Hampshire primary lines up better for me. My gut says, probably New Hampshire, but I don't really know it's going to be curious to see.

Gavin Jackson: And then Gibbs before we get out of here, just tell me about some of the top issues that you think we'll see play out and also maybe Nikki Haley's issue. When it comes to dealing with her messaging. Sometimes people say she's gone back and forth, especially when it came to Trump. What does she need to do to maybe stick on the issue stick on the policy and maybe not go back and forth, because she has a reputation for that?

Dean Gibbs Knotts, College of Charleston: Yeah, I think I think she's got to figure out what her what her response is to Donald Trump and being able to talk about like, you know, look, you know, I supported him, I served in his cabinet. But I think just this new generation of leadership, it's time to pass the torch. It's time to think of a new generation. Look, she has a lot of experience. She's still fairly young, especially when you look at some of our national politicians today. So I think being able to sort of make the case to you know, so she can be the candidate of the future, not the candidate of the past and it's time to move forward.

Gavin Jackson: That's Dean Gibbs Knotts of the College of Charleston. Thank you so much, sir.

Dean Gibbs Knotts, College of Charleston: Thanks, Gavin.

Gavin Jackson: Now, our coverage of the former governor doesn't end here. We'll be following her to Iowa and New Hampshire over the coming days. And we'll bring you that coverage on TWISC. And on, as well as all the other candidates visiting our state over the coming months. For all of us here at ETV, I'm Gavin Jackson. Be well, South Carolina.