South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has a lot of qualities her party needs: She’s a rising star who is young, female and the daughter of Indian immigrants.
That background could make her an ideal vice presidential candidate for a Republican Party that needs to diversify. And while she has had recent moments in the national spotlight in the aftermath of the Charleston church shooting, the choice of Haley to give the GOP address after President Obama’s final State of the Union speech is her biggest tryout yet.
The plum spot is both a prime opportunity and a risky bet for Haley — some of the most recent speakers have been panned and mocked. A few have seen their White House dreams die.
Republicans are promoting this as an “address,” not a GOP response, in an effort to change the comparisons between their speech and bully pulpit Obama has.
Here are five things you should know about Haley as you watch her Tuesday night.
1. She broke barriers as the first female and first minority governor of South Carolina.
Haley was born Nimrata Randhawa to Indian immigrants in Bamberg, S.C. A 2010 New York Times profile detailed how her parents “entered Nikki and her sister in the Little Miss Bamberg pageant. The judges of the contest, one that crowned one black queen and one white queen, were so flummoxed that they simply disqualified Nikki and her sister, Simran — but not before Nikki, about 5, sang ‘This Land Is Your Land.’ ”
Haley’s parents ran a clothing store in the small town south of Columbia, and she began working there at age 13. She would go on to Clemson University to study accounting and met her husband, Michael, there. Haley was raised Sikh; the two wed in both Sikh and Methodist ceremonies. Haley was baptized into the Methodist Church and now identifies as Christian.
Elected to the state Legislature in 2004 and then winning a contentious governor’s race in 2010, she became not just the first female chief executive of the Palmetto State but also its first minority governor. And at age 43, she is also the youngest governor in the country.
2. A Hillary Clinton speech inspired her first run for office.
Haley returned to work in her family’s clothing store after college. Her interest in finance, taxes and government spurred her interest in a run for office. When she heard a speech by Hillary Clinton at a local college, she made up her mind.
“She said there will be all of these reasons that people tell you [that] you can’t do it. She said that there’s only one reason for you to do it, and it’s because you know it’s the right thing. I walked out of there thinking, I’ve got to do this,” she told Vogue in 2012.
3. In her 2010 gubernatorial race, she was the Tea Party favorite.
When Haley — seen as a protege of then-Gov. Mark Sanford, before his ill-fated “hike on the Appalachian Trail” — threw her hat into the 2010 race, she faced some stiff competition: Attorney General Henry McMaster, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer and U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett.
Her limited-government approach may have seemed out of place in the race initially, but with the rapid growth of the Tea Party in the midterm election that year, she began riding a wave that would take her all the way to the governor’s mansion by pulling out the primary upset. During that race, she had the endorsement of 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who had dubbed Haley one of her “mama grizzlies.”
But in rough-and-tumble South Carolina politics, the contest was an ugly one, too, and she had to beat back what Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon called “slings and arrows” from both inside and outside her party.
“There were allegations of infidelity that had no credibility, or nothing really backing them up, when she was initially running. There were accusations of ethics violations from her time serving in the South Carolina Legislature, and nothing ever came from those, either,” Huffmon explained. “Everywhere we’ve seen smoke, so far there has been no fire.”
Haley has had to deal with other scandals and crises in the governor’s office too, after numerous children who were under the care of that state’s Department of Social Services died and when a massive data breach of the state Department of Revenue allowed hackers to steal many residents’ private information.
Her approval ratings dipped during her first term in the aftermath of those controversies, but they rebounded and she handily won re-election in 2014.
4. She endorsed Mitt Romney in 2012.
Because of South Carolina’s early status in the primary calendar, Haley was a sought-after endorsement four years ago in the GOP presidential race, and she is yet again ahead of the state’s Feb. 20 vote.
In late 2011, she threw her support behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a coup for the establishment favorite. Even though Romney would win the nomination, he lost the South Carolina primary to Newt Gingrich — the first blemish on the state’s three-decades-long perfect record in picking the eventual nominee.
She hasn’t picked a candidate yet this cycle, though she has good relationships with both former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
“I plan to be a really sweet host to all,” Haley said as she was showing Bush around the state last May. “I don’t know if I’ll endorse. … It’s not going to be anytime soon.”
Now, her endorsement could be even more valuable if she has a strong performance Tuesday night.
5. She earned praise for the way she helped broker a compromise to bring down the controversial Confederate battle flag from the State House grounds.
Tragic events put Haley in the national spotlight last June, after a 21-year-old white man killed nine churchgoers at a Bible study at the historic black congregation in Charleston known as Mother Emanuel AME.
The next day, on June 18, Haley stood in a makeshift briefing room near the Charleston waterfront and tried to give voice to what many in her state were feeling.
“We woke up today, and the heart and soul of South Carolina was broken,” Haley said as she fought back tears. “Parents are having to explain to their kids how they can go to church and feel safe. And that’s not something we ever thought we’d deal with.”
The investigation into the murders in Charleston revealed that the alleged shooter had ties to white supremacist groups and proudly posed with a Confederate battle flag in photos online.
Within days, Haley called a press conference at the State House in Columbia.
“We have stared evil in the eye and watched good, prayerful people killed in one of the most sacred of places,” she said, surrounded by black leaders, including Rep. Jim Clyburn and Sen. Tim Scott.
Haley called for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the State House — a move she had to know would prove controversial. After a fight in the state Legislature, the flag was was taken down in July.
In a Winthrop University poll conducted two months later, Haley’s approval rating stood at 55 percent, with two-thirds of South Carolinians supporting the decision to remove the flag — including a majority of white residents.