BY ANDREW SHAIN and GINA SMITH
Despite recent attempts to upend her and her agenda, Gov. Nikki Haley appears to have avoided any severe long-term career damage for now, political consultants and analysts said.
Haley has endured months of criticism about a House Ethics Committee investigation over claims she used her office for personal gain and lobbied illegally for employers. She was cleared after a two-day hearing last month.
“The governor’s Teflon got dinged a little but no fatal wounds,” said Wesley Donehue, Senate GOP caucus director and a political consultant. “It was a giant nothing burger.”
She turned that case — as well as the blockage of a vote on her pet political proposal, the Department of Administration — into the classic narrative of her campaign and governorship: The good ol’ boys are fighting Haley’s reforms by attacking her with baseless accusations.
“Every single time the Legislature tries to hurt her, they help her build her reputation,” Donehue said. “They’re not smart enough to know they are putting a political gun to their own temples and pulling the trigger.”
Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political scientist, said he expects Haley’s opponents will not back down and are girding for another fight after asking themselves, “How does she keep getting out of this?”
“If a boxer throws a punch and you’re opponent doesn’t flinch, you’ll throw a harder punch next time,” Huffmon said. “They thought (ethics accuser) John Rainey had a knockout punch. Now they’re now putting horseshoes in their boxing gloves.”
They might have a hard time making the blows sting. Her approval rating among Republicans was 60 percent this spring, according to a Winthrop University poll.
Recent internal polling shows Haley’s favorability — which tends to be higher than approval ratings — reaching around 70 percent among Republicans in the Pee Dee and the Upstate counties of Greenville and Spartanburg.
“She should be in the 80 (percent favorability) with that audience,” said Tucker Eskew, a South Carolina native and seasoned, Washington-based consultant who worked in the George W. Bush White House. “I’d say they’re good numbers with room to grow.”
Eskew doubts the ethics investigation will hurt her standing with GOP voters if she decides to seek re-election in 2014.
“They chose her in the primary when there was some of this smoke. They chose her in a general election when they was more of this smoke,” he said, referring to allegations Haley had affairs with two men that she denied. “And now, it’s been proven there’s no flames on this ethics matter. It’s good for her.”
But others, including Republican consultant Chip Felkel, aren’t so sure.
He said disparity exists between Haley’s reputation within the state and outside of it.
The national media continues to dote on Haley as an exceptional, young, minority woman who beat the odds to become governor in the Deep South. Her name comes up regularly in chatter about vice president possibilities for presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. She’s written a biography and been featured in magazines, most recently Vogue.
At home, she faces a more critical eye on issues such as backing a decision to allow a permit that critics say provides Georgia’s Savannah port a competitive advantage over South Carolina’s Charleston port.
“Most of the S.C. press stories written about Nikki Haley in the last three months have been about ethics issues and about her not getting along with the Legislature,” Felkel said. “It could have an effect. I think there’s perhaps some rising cynicism about her.”
Haley’s testimony during her surprise appearance on the witness stand at her ethics case last month will be seen as a touchstone in her career.
Felkel said Haley’s comments about Rainey, a GOP activist from Camden, could be perceived by some as not being gubernatorial. After reinforcing she had done nothing wrong, she called Rainey, a “racist, sexist bigot” based on their only meeting while she was running for governor.
Rainey released a copy of a thank-you note that he received from Haley after that meeting and added that, “I believe this demonstrates, yet again, her inability to tell the truth.”
This kind of back-and-forth has become commonplace in Palmetto politics.
“This is South Carolina. We don’t play statesman-like,” Huffmon said. “This is pistols at dawn.”
Several experts said they thought Haley looked good defending herself and her family — something many voters empathized with.
“It was shrewd,” said Jack Bass, a College of Charleston political scientist. “It gave her a slightly increased image of greater strength. It gave the appearance she had nothing to hide.”