Nikki Haley Is Playing It Safe In The South Carolina Governor’s Primary

"South Carolina voters, I think they remember that stuff. What good does it do?"

If Nikki Haley has a favorite in this year's race for South Carolina governor, she's not sharing it.

The US ambassador to the United Nations is one of the most popular political figures in the country: One recent poll found her to be the highest-rated Republican in President Trump’s administration. Conservatives picture her as a future running mate to Mike Pence or as a presidential candidate in her own right — someone who played ball with Trump without compromising her conservative credentials — who can reshape the party whenever the Trump era ends.

But nowhere is Haley’s popularity more valuable than in the state where she was elected to two terms as governor and where Republicans are now locked in a messy fight over who’s the rightful heir to her legacy. Haley could be the kingmaker if she wanted to be. Instead, she is keeping a careful distance, leaving her prized endorsement on the shelf in a state that helps select Republican presidential nominees.

“The only things more popular in South Carolina when Haley left office were Jesus and college football,” Rob Godfrey, a top aide to Haley as governor, told BuzzFeed News. “When you have a governor who’s made such a difference in her state, it’s only natural that each of the candidates running for that office would try to tout themselves as a guardian of her legacy.”

Haley has friends in several camps across the five-candidate field in next month’s Republican gubernatorial primary, where much of the attention is on Henry McMaster, who succeeded Haley as governor when she left for the UN, and on challenger Catherine Templeton, who served in Haley’s cabinet. McMaster, 71, has Trump’s endorsement and is running as the continuity candidate. Templeton, 47, is running as the antidote to the “good ol’ boys” club — a message that cribs from Haley’s surprising rise in the 2010 race for governor.

Under the Hatch Act and State Department ethics rules, Haley is limited in what she can say and do politically. She nonetheless made her choice known last year in South Carolina’s special House election by contributing $100 to eventual winner Ralph Norman. (She also received a warning later in the year when her retweet of Trump’s Norman endorsement ran afoul of ethics law.)

South Carolina Republicans say the House race was different for Haley: Backing Norman, one of her strongest allies in the state legislature, was an easier move in a two-way primary runoff. Picking a favorite in the higher-profile gubernatorial contest, even in a runoff that would come if no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, could be riskier for her future.

That’s especially true if Haley — who was critical of Trump in 2016 and instead backed Sen. Marco Rubio for president (an endorsement that didn’t put him over in South Carolina’s primary) — were to go against Trump and endorse Templeton. South Carolina, with its traditionally early presidential primary, remains an important state for those with White House ambitions.

“She needs political options,” said one ally, who requested anonymity to offer insights into Haley’s closely guarded thinking. “Any moment in this administration could be your last.”

An unaffiliated Republican operative agreed. “South Carolina voters, I think they remember that stuff. What good does it do? She’s been friends with Henry. She’s been friends with Catherine.”

Godfrey, who keeps in touch with Haley but says he has not discussed the race with her or aligned himself with any of the gubernatorial hopefuls, believes it “makes sense that she would stay out of” a primary in which her supporters are divided.

“Nikki Haley is someone who is very respectful of the will of the voters of South Carolina, and I don’t think she would feel that it’s her role to jump into a statewide race,” Godfrey said.

A USUN spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that Haley is not supporting anyone in the race.

But there have been clues that supporters of one candidate or another are eager to read into as signal of Haley’s preference. Tim Pearson, who ran Haley’s gubernatorial campaigns and served as her chief of staff, is McMaster’s general consultant. Mikee Johnson, a South Carolina lumber magnate and prominent Haley ally, is a key Templeton fundraiser.

“Ambassador Haley had incredibly strong poll numbers when she left office, so it makes sense to tap in to the Haley base,” said Taft Matney, a Republican consultant in South Carolina who is not affiliated with any of the gubernatorial campaigns. “Ambassador Haley may be in Manhattan, but her influence in this gubernatorial primary is felt a 15-hour drive south.”

Then there are the dueling messages framed around Haley’s legacy. Templeton’s supporters are convinced that packaging her as another Haley — a younger female candidate swinging away at the old guard — is a recipe for victory. McMaster’s backers believe a continuity argument works better in 2018, with a Republican in the White House and Haley a rising star nationally, than it did when Haley broke through as an insurgent eight years ago. And some note that Haley’s 2010 bid was helped by an endorsement from Sarah Palin, who was at the height of her popularity as a tea party rallying figure. Templeton hasn’t received that kind of boost.

Polls have shown McMaster as the clear frontrunner, but Republicans expect him to fall short of the 50% mark and face Templeton or self-funding businessperson John Warren in a runoff two weeks after the June 12 primary. (Warren’s candidacy intrigues those looking for an alternative, but most who spoke to BuzzFeed News are skeptical he will nudge out Templeton.)

McMaster and Templeton have approached it as a two-way race, each trading fire against the other. In January, Pearson tapped out a tweetstorm that blasted Templeton and her efforts to link herself with Haley. McMaster allies also are quick to note that he endorsed Haley after losing to her in the 2010 primary, while Templeton voted for Haley’s Democratic opponent that year.

The conflict came to a head this month when unidentified sources told the Charleston Post and Courier that Haley had fired Templeton from her position as director of the state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control. Haley issued a statement from her UN office refuting the claim and defending Templeton’s version that she resigned the post voluntarily. Some interpreted the statement, which caught many by surprise, as nod in Templeton’s direction. Not so, according to Haley's office in New York.

“While she loves South Carolina, Ambassador Haley has not endorsed and is not supporting any candidate in the Governor’s race," a USUN spokesperson said. "What she can and will do is correct factual errors that are reported about her record as governor.”

Templeton campaign manager R.J. May, noting a Labor Department job Templeton turned down after Trump was elected, links her positively to the president and Haley.

“Catherine Templeton,” he said, “is the only person in this race who’s been offered a job by both Donald Trump and Nikki Haley.”

Some Republicans believe McMaster’s campaign was behind the Post and Courier piece and see Haley’s statement at the very least as a sign that she disapproves of such tactics. Pearson, in an interview with BuzzFeed News, denied involvement. He also said he has not discussed the race with Haley, citing the federal restrictions on how she can engage.

“She certainly factors in [the race] in a serious way,” Pearson said. “Along with the president, she’s the most popular political figure in South Carolina. … She and Henry are friends. I’m not going to speak for her beyond that.”

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