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Despite having been governor, Nikki Haley lacks support from S.C. GOP leaders

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Nikki Haley was born and raised in South Carolina, and she grew up to serve her home state as governor for six years. But despite those ties, she is not expected to win tomorrow's Republican primary in her home state. Donald Trump's fame is a factor, and another is the conspicuous lack of support from Republican officials in South Carolina.

NPR's Stephen Fowler joins us now from South Carolina for more on this interesting dynamic. Stephen, good morning.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So let's start with the voters. You've been to early voting sites, and you're speaking with voters. What do they have to say about why they do or don't support Haley?

FOWLER: Well, Michel, to start, lots of voters say it isn't even about Nikki Haley. Donald Trump is a former president running for president again and is very popular with primary voters and most elected officials within the GOP. I mean, it could be anyone challenging him that would face the same skepticism.

An underrated thing to understand is that Nikki Haley's record as governor - good, bad, or complicated - just doesn't resonate with a sizable chunk of the electorate here because they didn't live in South Carolina when she was governor, and the home state advantage means nothing. Here's Sharon Johnson, who recently retired to Conway, just outside Myrtle Beach, from the Northeast.

SHARON JOHNSON: Nikki Haley - too much backing from Democratic Party people. I don't trust her.

FOWLER: Now, charitably, many people say she's got her chance in the future. Trump's time is now. And even the Haley supporters I've talked to, by and large, still say they'll support Trump if and when he wins the nomination.

MARTIN: Oh, that is so interesting. I hadn't even thought about that. So - but, you know, so many elected Republicans in South Carolina aren't waiting around for the if and when, and they are forcefully supporting Trump's campaign in 2024. So what does that look like?

FOWLER: You've got virtually every big Palmetto State name up and down the ballot, from Governor Henry McMaster to U.S. Senator Tim Scott - who Haley appointed to that seat, by the way - to other lawmakers Haley previously helped get through tough elections, like Congresswoman Nancy Mace. Mace recently pledged her allegiance to Trump at a press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NANCY MACE: I am here today because I support Donald J. Trump for president. He is the only man who can save our country.

FOWLER: Mace is facing another tough primary challenge this time, but the calculus seems to be that having Trump on her side is worth alienating Haley.

MARTIN: That's tough. I mean, that kind of brings to mind that old phrase - you know, with friends like these, who needs enemies? But is there something about Haley's time in office that has left her with fewer allies in the state?

FOWLER: Absolutely. I mean, Nikki Haley was a confrontational governor, though mainly with other Republicans. In fact, her Facebook page still has barbs against individual lawmakers that didn't vote how she wanted. And she was notorious for making and sharing lists of people she didn't like. And the feeling seems to be mutual.

MARTIN: With all that in mind, what exactly is Haley hoping happens tomorrow in this state?

FOWLER: Well, Haley is on track for a healthy defeat in the South Carolina primary, Michel, but that's not stopping her from soldiering on. She gave a State of the Race address Tuesday, when she recalled a conversation with a young mother looking for Haley to bring back something missing to the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIKKI HALEY: She just wants a return to normalcy. She wants me to keep running for the sake of her 4-year-old son. She hopes he'll see the, quote, "America she grew up in."

FOWLER: But the thing is, there is no return to normalcy in a world where the GOP now equals DJT. And that's Haley's biggest problem not just in South Carolina, but in the presidential race in general. She rode the Tea Party express to power, and those voters she cornered are now fully on the Trump train. And no amount of experience, policies or personality can overcome that. Put simply, Michel, this is not the Republican Party that elevated Nikki Haley more than a decade ago.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Stephen Fowler joining us from Columbia, S.C. Stephen, thank you.

FOWLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Stephen Fowler
Stephen Fowler is a political reporter with NPR's Washington Desk and will be covering the 2024 election based in the South. Before joining NPR, he spent more than seven years at Georgia Public Broadcasting as its political reporter and host of the Battleground: Ballot Box podcast, which covered voting rights and legal fallout from the 2020 presidential election, the evolution of the Republican Party and other changes driving Georgia's growing prominence in American politics. His reporting has appeared everywhere from the Center for Public Integrity and the Columbia Journalism Review to the PBS NewsHour and ProPublica.