RICHBURG — ONLINE
Nikki Haley, the self-proclaimed jobs governor, has sold a business on South Carolina again.
Haddon House Food Products chose to expand its 25-year-old distribution center in Chester County rather than build a new one in Florida because of incentives and other support that the first-term Republican governor offered during a 45-minute phone conversation with the New Jersey-based company’s chief executive.
“I assumed it would be a three- to five-minute conversation at best,” said a surprised Haddon House boss David Anderson Sr. on Wednesday during a groundbreaking ceremony with the governor an hour north of Columbia.
Haddon House’s 100 new employees will join the more than 31,000 jobs that Haley’s office says have been announced for South Carolina since she took office in 2011 – a key selling point that the Lexington County Republican will tout as she tries to win a second term in the Governor’s Mansion.
Haley has not formally announced she will run in 2014, but supporters expect her to enter the race this summer. Meanwhile, her schedule includes regular travels to economic development events across the state to tout her jobs record, such as groundbreaking for a $25 million inland port in Greer on Friday, and she continues to hold fundraisers, including one in Washington, D.C., last Monday.
Her campaign operation, already open in downtown Columbia and fueled with $1.5 million in contributions, also is making moves. A 164-person grass-roots steering committee, featuring state GOP chairman Chad Connelly, was announced two weeks ago. And, early this week, the campaign will introduce a finance committee that includes Barry Wynn, who was finance chairman to then-U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett’s 2010 unsuccessful bid for the GOP nomination for governor, a contest Haley won.
“There’s a lot of excitement about her being governor for four more years,” Wynn said last week.
The race setup
Haley wants her re-election operation running with a broad base of support when her formal announcement comes, said Tim Pearson, who managed the governor’s 2010 campaign and was chief of staff to the governor until last fall, when he left to become her political consultant.
“The (grass-roots) group has fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, party leaders – there’s not a segment of the political world out there that’s not on our side,” he said.
However, for the moment, Haley says she has priorities other than running for re-election – including helping her family while her husband is deployed in Afghanistan with the S.C. National Guard and promoting her agenda for this year’s legislative session. That agenda includes ethics reform and road funding.
The Haley campaign is preparing to face an opponent in the June 2014 GOP primary, Pearson said, even though she is not expected to face a serious challenge. Two potential Republican rivals have decided not to run, state Treasurer Curtis Loftis and state Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort. A third potential GOP rival, Tim Scott of North Charleston, was appointed by Haley to the U.S. Senate in December to fill Jim DeMint’s unexpired term.
Haley’s campaign thinks she again will face state Sen. Vincent Sheheen in the November 2014 general election. The Kershaw County Democrat lost the governor’s race to Haley by 4.5 percentage points in 2010.
Sheheen is keeping his name before Democrats. He attended the Democratic National Convention and a Democratic Governor’s Association meeting last year, and is positioning himself to run again for governor as a leader on government reform – an issue Haley also claims.
“It’s fair to say Sen. Sheheen is certainly acting like he is running for governor,” Pearson said.
Last week, Sheheen said that he has no plans to announce a gubernatorial campaign, preferring to concentrate on legislative issues, such as starting a statewide 4-year-old kindergarten program, and “not focus on the horse race.” But he shares a view, common among Democrats, about Haley’s ambitions.
“It’s pretty apparent to most people that Gov. Haley has been running for re-election since she has been sworn into office,” Sheheen said.
‘Are they better off?’
Democrats say Haley has done a good job building a reputation for job creation, a key issue in South Carolina which is struggling with high unemployment, post-Great Recession.
Haley has been admirable in promoting economic development, though, in some instances, she takes more credit than she deserves, said state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg.
Cobb-Hunter expects the 2014 race to be a repeat of 2010, though she thinks Sheheen will avoid the slow start that hurt his first gubernatorial campaign, talking instead about Haley’s record from Day 1.
“He was a little disconcerted to run against a woman,” Cobb-Hunter said of Sheheen. “She’s still a woman. But she has been governor for three years. … We (Democrats) get to ask voters: ‘Are they better off for having her as governor?’ ”
The early indications are that the 2014 race won’t be a cakewalk for Haley.
Her job favorability numbers are improving but remain under 50 percent, according to a Winthrop University poll released last month.
Despite bringing jobs, South Carolina’s jobless rate remains among the nation’s highest. While she now touts ethics reform, Haley had to fight off charges last year that she had used her position as a Lexington state representative to enrich herself. Some S.C. voters also still may be smarting over Haley’s decision to replace financier Darla Moore on the University of South Carolina’s board of trustees with a campaign contributor. Others may be upset that hackers stole personal data belonging to 6.4 million consumers and businesses last year from the S.C. Department of Revenue, one of the state agencies under Haley’s direct control.
“My goodness me, there was a lot of negative talk about her. But she strengthened her hand when she named Tim Scott (a Tea Party favorite and the state’s first African-American senator) to the (U.S.) Senate,” retired Francis Marion University political scientist Neal Thigpen said. But, Thigpen added, “Don’t bet against an incumbent even if she made mistakes.”
Haley aide Pearson blames some of the governor’s low poll numbers on the general unpopularity of governors who have had to make some tough, unpopular choices.
But, he added, “She has done a lot things she said she was going to do. She’s making people proud of the state (as) a place where people can find jobs and be proud of their government.”
Winning over old rivals
Haley’s grass-roots re-election committee is supposed to show how she has brought the GOP together after a rough 2010 gubernatorial primary, political experts say. During that divisive primary, Haley was attacked for her lack of a political experience and accused – without concrete evidence – of having extramarital affairs.
Haley also initially got off to a rough start with the Republican-controlled General Assembly, issuing report cards for legislators and ripping GOP legislative leaders as good ol’ boys in her autobiography. However, she has worked to improve her relationship with the General Assembly. Last year, for instance, she scrapped plans for a second legislative report card, and, this year, she is seen as working better with lawmakers.
“Clearly, she knows she has the power and is using it positively,” said Luke Byars, a Haley grass-roots committee member who was Barrett’s 2010 campaign manager in the Republican primary for governor.
Haley also has won a national stage – speaking at the Republican National Convention last year and chairing the Republican Governors Association’s main fundraiser last week.
“She’s very popular outside South Carolina,” Byars said. “They are seeing what’s happening in South Carolina and appreciate what she is doing. … We’ve got a rising star, and, with unified support, she has the potential to be one of the most effective governors in the state’s history.”
Haley’s grass-roots committee also includes a few Tea Party veterans, a group to expected stick with the governor despite not always agreeing with her decisions, such as backing eventual GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney in the state’s Republican primary in January 2013.
“Some of them won’t get on board, and they are targeting her now,” said Allen Olson, who left the Columbia Tea Party after he felt some in the movement veered away to social issues from fiscal issues. “These are people with personal agendas. They thought that they helped get her elected and thought they could control her. That didn’t work out.”
The finance committee being announced this week is sign that Haley might be winning over another coalition, said Wynn, who was state party chairman during GOP Gov. Carroll Campbell’s tenure.
“A lot of the Carroll Campbell Republicans have gotten excited about the campaign,” he said. “Like Campbell, she focuses on job creation and reform.”
In the 2010 primary, Haley did not have the support of the Campbell Republicans because “she had not built the credibility as an economic-development champion,” Wynn said
This time, however, “She has shown she has kept her eye on the target,” he said.
‘We’re all partners’
Before she grabbed a gold-painted shovel at the Haddon House groundbreaking in Richburg, Haley stood before a group of employees and local officials and announced she works for Anderson, the company’s chief executive.
“My job is whatever you need, whenever you need it,” she said. “We in South Carolina are here.”
Anderson said Haley is different than the other S.C. governors that he has worked with over 25 years.
“She is much more accessible than other governors and even more so than in other states where we have facilities,” he said. “She’s very hands on.”
Haley gives job prospects her personal cell number and tries to visit their plants when asked to do so. And she’s always pitching.
“Whatever we can do to help you expand … let us do that,” Haley told Craig Carlock, chief executive of The Fresh Market grocery chain, a Haddon House customer who attended the groundbreaking. “We’re all partners in this.”
Last month, Haley attended seven groundbreakings, plant tours and economic-development announcements, and participated in 11 economic development calls and meetings, according to her public schedule.
“The worst thing is to look too comfortable in the Governor’s Mansion,” Citadel political scientist Scott Buchanan said.
The groundbreaking for Haddon House was Haley’s second visit to Chester County last week. She interrupted a trip to Washington for a Republican Governors Association conference a week ago to return to South Carolina to meet with another industrial prospect in the county.
“What would you think if the governor came in on a Sunday morning to talk with you?” Chester County supervisor Carlisle Roddey said. “That would make a big difference to me.
“What she’s doing helps a lot.”