Well, that was fast. I put my kid to bed last night, checked the New York Times Web site, and Nikki Haley had already won the Republican gubernatorial primary run-off in South Carolina. Given the strength of the GOP in the state, Haley will likely be elected governor in the fall, unless she self-destructs in some spectacular fashion. She would be the first woman and member of an ethnic minority to lead South Carolina. With such accomplishments and Sarah Palin’s endorsement in her quiver, Haley is primed to become a leading figure on the national stage for the GOP, which for years has been desperate to show that its tent really is big. (See Michael Steele.)
I’m glad that Haley managed to transcend the mudfest that the primary race had become, first with allegations about her infidelity and more recently with pointed questions about her commitment to Christianity just before the run-off . I’m also glad that conservative South Carolina voters weren’t distracted by those issues as they voted.
Some in the media are already calling the Haley victory a sign of racial progress in South Carolina. Certainly, the state’s GOP leaders consider this a proud moment. It helps, too, that on Tuesday, Tim Scott, an African-American state legislator, defeated Strom Thurmond’s son to become the GOP candidate for a conservative Congressional district that includes Ft. Sumter. If elected, Scott would be the first black Republican in Congress since 2003.
The results may signal progress, in that two-steps-forward, one-step-back kind of way that things improve in this earthly life. Haley was accepted by voters in the deep red of the Bible Belt. Yet though she was born and brought up in South Carolina, she’s had to jump through hoops that weren’t put in front of other politicians to prove to voters that she’s one of them. An article in the Wall Street Journal notes that she’d been asked repeatedly about her commitment to Christianity, even before the last-minute whisper campaign. The most illuminating part of the story, however, is mention of an interview she gave a group called the Palmetto Patriots, whose mission statement merges Tea Party values with a commitment to "fight attacks against Southern Culture, refute public school misinformation, and promote the true history of the South."
In a video of the interview , a Palmetto Patriot asks her: "What’s your belief about the reasons the Civil War was fought?" The group didn’t ask other politicians because, they said, the others are people (white people, might I add) whose families have lived in the state since antebellum times and therefore, understand the South. From growing up in the South, I know that some Southern white folks can’t let the Civil War be. It’s a scab to be picked at again and again, so that it never properly heals. Say the wrong thing about the war and you'll hurt sensibilities, showing yourself as the outsider you are.
The video is fascinating to watch. The camera is only on Haley. She is calm, she never mentions slavery, and she explains the war as a clash between those who valued tradition and those who wanted change. Nonetheless, she stands by her belief that everyone is due life and liberty. The men interviewing her off-camera spend a lot of time schooling her on the injustice of the Union invasion and the faults of the Emancipation Proclamation. Haley is reassuring and patient, her brow furrowed with sympathy. She looks like someone listening to a demented uncle prone to violent outbursts. She’s masterful.
Haley isn’t about to challenge what conservative South Carolinians hold dear. Any progress in the state may stem from the fact that the largely white, Christian, conservative constituency believes a vow like that coming from an Indian-American woman.
Photograph of Nikki Haley by Chris Keane/Getty Images.