Why Nikki Haley Has So Few Friends Left in South Carolina Politics

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The stories pile up one after another, of thanks not offered, allies antagonized, opponents not forgiven — a portrait of a politician who climbed the ladder with speed and skill but failed to ensure that the people who helped her would have her back if she needed them.

Now that politician, Nikki Haley, has returned to her home state of South Carolina in desperate need of support in high places to revive her flagging quest for the presidency.

She is finding little of it.

The man who had been her lieutenant governor, Henry McMaster, signed on with Donald J. Trump long ago. The backbench House member she plucked from a crowded field of South Carolina contenders to put into the United States Senate, Tim Scott, endorsed Mr. Trump just days before the crucial New Hampshire primary, and stood behind him Tuesday night as the former president mocked Ms. Haley’s dress.

The congresswoman whose career was rescued from a Trump-backed challenger in 2022 by a timely Haley endorsement, Nancy Mace, has also sided with Mr. Trump, a man she once said needed to be held to account for the riot of Jan. 6, 2021.

“She was good on economic development but not great on cultivating relationships,” Chip Felkel, a longtime Republican political consultant and Trump critic, said of Ms. Haley. “She forgot who helped her get here.”

In the rough-and-tumble politics of South Carolina, the 12 years that Ms. Haley spent as a state representative, then as the youngest governor in the country, were remarkable. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Ms. Haley repeatedly defied expectations as she took on an entrenched old guard in the Deep South. She edged out much better known Republican politicians running first for the legislature, then for governor, and was resoundingly elected to her second term — a rise so meteoric that her campaign sells T-shirts that read “Underestimate Me, That’ll Be Fun.”

Both Ms. Haley and her supporters attribute the hard feelings she left in her wake to jealousy, sexism and the sense that a young woman of color had simply not waited her turn. But for all the talk of South Carolina’s penchant for dirty tricks, the state also values the glad hand. And that was not Ms. Haley’s style.

Campaigning in New Hampshire last week, Ms. Haley said South Carolina lawmakers had “no love for me” because she fought to make state government more transparent and vetoed pork-barrel projects.

“The good ol’ boys have never liked her,” said State Representative Nathan Ballentine, a Republican and close friend who is supporting Ms. Haley. Mr. Ballentine said he was disappointed to see so many South Carolina Republicans whom she had supported backing Mr. Trump, particularly Mr. Scott. But he was not surprised.

A spokeswoman for the Haley campaign, Olivia Perez-Cubas, dismissed the rush to back Mr. Trump as expected. Mr. Trump has “become the establishment,” Ms. Perez-Cubas said. “Nikki has always been the outsider candidate fighting the political insiders.”

There are many reasons South Carolina’s political class is falling in line: Many have long supported Mr. Trump, believe he will be the nominee and fear their constituents — or Mr. Trump’s allies — might punish them for straying.

Even if Ms. Haley had a battery of endorsements, a comeback like the one she’s attempting would be a stretch. Statewide polls are scarce, but one taken before the Iowa caucuses showed Mr. Trump 29 points ahead of Ms. Haley, who resigned as governor eight years ago to serve in Mr. Trump’s administration. Mr. Trump won the state handily in 2016, and by a slightly greater margin in 2020.

Ms. Haley declared her outsider status in her very first campaign, recalled Representative Ralph Norman, the only Republican member of the state’s congressional delegation backing her. He noted her first run for state representative was a Republican primary challenge against Larry Koon, the longest-serving legislator in Columbia at the time.

“She took on a 30-year incumbent; he had family,” Mr. Norman said, referring to the close-knit state legislature.

Mr. Koon and his supporters responded by referring to her as “Nimrata N. Randhawa,” relegating the middle name she uses to an initial, a tactic Mr. Trump has adopted. Smear campaigns and racist fliers followed. But she won.

In the State House, Ms. Haley resisted the rules of the state’s famously hidebound political club, said Tom Davis, a Republican and one of a small handful of state senators who have endorsed her.

Her campaign to mandate that every vote be on the record, not in backroom deal-making, cost her a seat on a powerful House committee and her position of majority whip in her third term as a legislator, she wrote in a memoir.

As governor, she published “report cards” on how state lawmakers voted on her priorities, and actively campaigned against some who opposed her policies. She also pushed to force legislators to disclose their outside sources of income, although some saw that as a way to defang a controversy about her own conduct as a lawmaker.

Some who know her suggest her dukes-up approach when she first moved into the governor’s mansion partly reflected her deep resentment of the sordid attacks on her during the campaign. By all accounts, she kept a very tight inner circle.

“None of us are perfect,” Mr. Norman said, shaking his head after a Haley rally in North Charleston on Wednesday night. “Did she not thank somebody? Maybe. Did she not do some things? We all make mistakes.”

But, he said, “I saw that leadership when I was there with her. That’s what attracted me to her as governor.”

Mick Mulvaney, a White House chief of staff under Mr. Trump who served in the State House with Ms. Haley and when she was governor, was one of those South Carolina Republicans who was not in Ms. Haley’s camp and was often in her cross hairs.

“I’ve always got the feeling that she — or maybe her people, it’s hard to say sometimes — has never forgiven people who didn’t support her for governor in 2010,” said Mr. Mulvaney, who has not endorsed in the primary. “I’m included in that group.”

The one episode that has followed her involved Mark Sanford, the disgraced former governor of South Carolina, who had pushed her to run for governor before he disappeared on a trip to Argentina to visit a girlfriend. His extramarital affair had made him persona non grata in the state, but Ms. Haley pressed him repeatedly in private to help finance her campaign, according to three people with knowledge of the situation.

He finally agreed to open the coffers of Reform SC, a nonprofit group associated with him. The organization put on a $400,000 ad campaign promoting her candidacy.

“And then she cut me off,” Mr. Sanford told Politico Magazine. “This is systematic with Nikki: She cuts off people who have contributed to her success. It’s almost like there’s some weird psychological thing where she needs to pretend it’s self-made.”

Haley campaign officials say Ms. Haley thanked him for the help. And Mr. Sanford’s ex-wife, Jenny Sanford, was emphatic on the point: “If she says she thanked him, I believe her.”

In 2011, after her election to the governorship, Ms. Haley removed one of South Carolina’s few billionaires, Darla Moore, from the University of South Carolina board, replacing her with a campaign contributor over the pleadings of Republicans and Democrats alike.

Ms. Moore, who has been a generous donor to Republicans and Democrats, had also been the university’s single largest benefactor in its history. To get in the new governor’s good graces, Ms. Moore offered $5 million for a new building as long as the state matched it. Ms. Haley declined, press accounts reported.

At the time, Ms. Haley acknowledged the move “may not have been good politics” but said she wanted someone aligned with her own views.

Mr. Trump has made the most of her isolation. A campaign operative for the former president has paced the state capital of Columbia, lengthening the long list of state officials and legislators in Mr. Trump’s camp.

One political strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution from Trump allies and to discuss private conversations with clients, said the message was twofold: The former president could help their political careers if they back him; if they don’t, they should expect no favors.

Mr. Felkel said: “There’s a huge effort around the State House to get everyone on board, and to let people know there is a list.”

An official with Mr. Trump’s campaign in South Carolina, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, denied arm-twisting was involved, saying legislators were simply encouraged to ride a political wave for Mr. Trump.

On Wednesday night, as Ms. Haley spoke to a boisterous crowd in North Charleston, the Trump campaign blasted out its newest list of endorsements in South Carolina, 158 names in all, including both of the state’s senators, five out of six Republican House members, the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer and many state lawmakers.

For some, putting their name on the list was likely pure politics, not animus toward Ms. Haley. Josh Whitley, a county commissioner in the Charleston suburbs and an ally of Ms. Mace, said the congresswoman’s endorsement of Mr. Trump was pragmatic. Mr. Trump is going to be the eventual nominee, he said. The former speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, is scouring her district, looking for a conservative to challenge her in the primaries as payback for her role in deposing him. She couldn’t afford to have Mr. Trump working against her as well.

Ms. Mace would not confirm that reason. She simply said, “South Carolina likes Nikki Haley, but they love Donald Trump.”

Other missed or tardy endorsements from her former allies stand out.

Mark H. Smith, a Berkeley County state representative and Charleston funeral home executive, served on Ms. Haley’s “grass roots steering committee” for her re-election bid in 2014. He went to high school and the junior prom with Ms. Haley. He has spoken fondly of their youth together, riding bikes around the small town where she grew up, Bamberg, S.C.

He is one of the 158 names on Mr. Trump’s endorsement list.

Jazmine Ulloa contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett Bennett and Susan Beachy contributed research.

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