Gov. Nikki Haley Joins the Establishment

CHARLESTON, S.C., Jan. 10, 2016 | Removal of the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds is the gift that keeps on giving for South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

Not only will she receive a major leadership award Jan. 12 from Furman's Riley Institute for her role in taking down the flag, she's been tapped to give the national GOP response to President Obama's final State of the Union address.

Cynics easily spin the speech as little more than an attempt to illustrate that Republicans can be brown and female, not just white and male. Others may take it a step further and say the nationally-televised response is political payback. They'll remind you how the Republican National Committee chairman was on stage when Haley, who essentially ignored the flag in her first four years as governor, issued strong words to take it down after the Emanuel AME Church tragedy. Her voice for flag removal helped to thwart the possibility of weeks of uncomfortable questions from pesky reporters every time a GOP presidential candidate campaigned for votes in South Carolina's early primary. With the flag issue off the table, candidates could run their races. Meanwhile, moderate voters who wanted the flag down would not be reminded how Statehouse Republicans had kept up the flag for years.

Conspiracy theories aside, something more elegant may really be going on: Nikki Haley may be growing up politically, less a firebrand, more of a figure of the establishment.

When Haley took office in 2011, she schmoozed and got legislators thinking that coming years would be a walk in the park compared to the testy relationship between the GOP-led General Assembly and former Gov. Mark Sanford.

But after some early successes with cabinet appointments and the welcome of Boeing, Haley and leading South Carolina lawmakers soon were at loggerheads. Legislators complained she was quiet about a tax break for Amazon when leadership was needed. She angered folks when she got rid of philanthropist Darla Moore from the University of South Carolina board. Haley irritated lawmakers with a plan to force them to return to finish her political agenda. And she tried to get rid of state funding for South Carolina's public television network. Within six months of being sworn in as governor, stories outlined how Haley needed to mend lots of fences.

She then focused on ethics reform -- which still hasn't happened -- and getting the state's residents back to work, which has happened with the lowest unemployment rates in almost a generation. She railed against Obamacare, pumping up her tea party base by not wanting to accept free federal money to allow 200,000 of the poorest of South Carolinians to be able to get health insurance. She didn't slice and burn budgets with lots of vetoes.

As time passed, Haley's on-the-job training as governor seems to have moved her toward the middle, although she'll keep throwing red meat to anti-Obama conservatives during Tuesday's national speech.

She didn't, for example, veto an early childhood education program in 2013 pushed by Democratic nemesis Sen. Vincent Sheheen to expand 4-year-old kindergarten. And she didn't stop the program the following year when more money was appropriated to add more kids to the roll books.

Haley, once vociferous that she wouldn't raise gas taxes to pay for crumbling roads, may be mellowing on that a bit, especially after October floods broke dams and ruined roads across the Midlands, Pee Dee and Lowcountry. Just this week, the state Chamber of Commerce, led by former Haley chief of staff Ted Pitts, said South Carolina needed higher gas taxes for infrastructure, perhaps an early crutch for the governor to use to amend earlier toughness on gas taxes.

Also this week, Haley said she'll seek $19 million -- yes, new spending -- for 144 new prosecutors, 88 public defenders, three judges and staff to help thwart the high rate of domestic violence that grips the state.

Bottom line: The Nikki Haley of 2016 isn't the woman who took office in 2011. But with South Carolina already such a red state, you've got to wonder whether the new attention will have legs for something bigger for the hyper-ambitious governor.

P.S. Know these names? U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst? They gave the GOP responses in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

Andy Brack is editor and publisher of Statehouse Report, South Carolina's leading policy and legislative forecast.