A year later, flag removal anchors Haley legacy, future

Cheering and applause fill the rotunda as South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, surrounded by former South Carolina governors and state lawmakers, signs a bill into law removing the Confederate battle flag on July 9, 2015, at the Statehouse in Columbia.

COLUMBIA — Gov. Nikki Haley may go down in history as the leader who stamped out the Confederate flag in South Carolina, but in the last year she’s also sought to reinforce her march back to the right.

Signing an abortion-restrictive bill — twice — continuing her anti-union rhetoric, defending voter ID and attempting to cut spending that many veteran Statehouse lawmakers wanted all played a part in keeping her Republican credentials current.

College of Charleston political science professor Gibbs Knotts said Haley’s ability to remove the flag served one national platform as she moved to reverse 50 years of Confederate display. But going forward, Haley’s resume is still bound by GOP roots for the next two years, he said, as she looks for other possibilities beyond that.

“Being able to successfully challenge the ‘big symbol’ of the South — the Confederate flag — and to be part of that transition to the new South in a real way, she deserves a lot of credit,” Knotts said.

However, Haley isn’t following the lame duck playbook either, Knotts said. He pointed to the governor shoring up her base by signing a 20-week abortion ban into law and declining to run to the politically safe center when she tried to halt, through veto, $40 million in flood relief for state farmers.

“You’d expect somebody who didn’t have to run in another primary to reach across the aisle and be in a more middle ground position to do that,” Knotts said. “Perhaps that’s her looking toward a primary in the future.”

Haley’s move to ride another political popularity wave crashed in March when her pick for president, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, ended his presidential bid. But state Republican Party Chairman Matt Moore said Haley’s legacy and prominence is still working to keep her options open post-2018 when her second term ends.

“Gov. Haley lived up to her ability as the representative of the New South, and that New South is forward-looking instead of backward-looking,” Moore said. “I think more politicians could use that kind of perspective.”

Moore added that the perspective he’s talking about won’t be lost at the Republican National Convention later this month in Cleveland. Though Haley has no plans to speak during the nomination of GOP standard-bearer Donald Trump, he expects her to interact with several state delegations on the sidelines.

“Gov. Haley is still a rising star,” Moore said. “Every convention delegation will be very interested in her and I’m sure she’ll use the opportunity to reinforce what she’s accomplished.”

Clemson University professor David Woodard, a Haley critic, agrees her action last summer to speak out against the flag increased her national viability and also “made her legacy.”

“There was still a dark cloud over the state and she completely got rid of that,” Woodard said about the banner. “She permanently removed it from the national discussion.”

She also fared — through a combination of timing, history changing events and tactics — much better on the matter than one notable predecessor. One of the main reasons that former Republican Gov. David Beasley lost his reelection bid to Democrat Jim Hodges in 1998 was for his own ill-timed, unilateral push to remove the flag, something he did without consulting other Republicans. As a result, Beasley’s political career never recovered.

Republicans who have followed Haley’s career say the sense of timing of the Emanuel AME Church shooting and her resulting call to bring the flag down, may have been fortunate for Haley. Bob McAlister, former chief of staff to Gov. Carroll Campbell and a public relations expert, said the impact of the flag’s removal drastically outweighed the negative feedback.

“When you’re in the governor’s office, if you’re good, you sense the timing of the people — you sense where they are going,” McAlister said. “I’m sure she sensed that. That was the moment for decision, one way or the other. And, frankly, had she not done what she did, I don’t know what would’ve happened to this state.”