Doug Brannon knows the blowback you can get for being a Southern Republican who doesn’t embrace the Confederate flag.
In the wake of the 2015 shooting at a historic Black church that killed nine people, including a state senator, Brannon, a state representative at the time, introduced the bill that would ultimately remove the Confederate flag from a monument at the South Carolina State House. The measure passed in both legislative chambers and was quickly signed into law by then-Gov. Nikki Haley.
While the move launched talk that Haley might one day run for president, Republicans like Brannon from hardcore conservative areas who backed the bill took a hit. Brannon was the first legislative Republican to join Democrats in calling to remove the flag. A year later, Brannon was primaried out of office.
In that same election, Wendy Nanney, a Republican from a less conservative neighboring district who voted against the measure, lost her seat — a sign the flag would continue to divide South Carolinians.
“She lost because she voted to leave the flag. I got beat because I voted to take it down,” said Brannon, an attorney from Spartanburg, South Carolina, the anchor city in a county where Trump won the 2016 primary and general election handily.
If Brannon’s fate revealed how ultra-conservative white Southerners feel about the Confederate flag, then it makes sense why Haley, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, isn’t making this aspect of her biography front and center to voters. The flag isn’t mentioned anywhere under Haley’s “record of results” on her campaign website. And it’s not included in the stump speech that Haley delivers to audiences of primary voters in early voting states.
In recent speeches reviewed by HuffPost, Haley mostly sticks to touting stricter voter ID laws and the economic development she oversaw as governor that made South Carolina what she calls “the beast of the Southeast.” When she gets into race issues, it’s to argue the country isn’t racist because voters elected her as the first woman of color to lead South Carolina.
“The one thing that bothers me the most is the national self-loathing that’s taken over our country. The idea that America’s rotten or that it’s bad or that it’s racist,” Haley, an Indian-American, told a crowd in Lexington, South Carolina, this month, standing in front of a gigantic American flag and neat line of hay bales. “America is not racist. America is blessed.”
Her campaign did not answer questions about why the flag isn’t included in her stump speech.
Haley has, however, answered questions about it as a presidential candidate. She told conservative writer Bari Weiss just after her campaign launch that people in South Carolina were split on whether the flag — raised at the capitol in 1962 to protest the civil rights movement — was a symbol of racial hatred or Southern pride. “My job as their governor was not to judge either side. My job was to show them that there’s a better path forward,” Haley said.
“My job as their governor was not to judge either side. My job was to show them that there’s a better path forward.”
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Trump ally who has not endorsed yet in the 2024 primary, said Haley should be happy with how she handled that time. “It showed political smarts and courage,” he told HuffPost.
But Haley clearly has a delicate balance to strike in a presidential primary against Trump and a GOP base that includes many white extremists. “She feels pinched, obviously, by Trump’s base, specifically the white nationalists and white supremacists,” said a GOP consultant from South Carolina, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “It’s really a tough intersection for her to talk about anything, and the notion of amazing grace or courage is not really a highly rewarded political feature these days in a GOP primary.”
In her 2019 book, Haley blames Dylann Roof, the gunman who killed nine Black parishioners at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, for hijacking the Confederate banner, giving cover to the weighty segment of white South Carolinians who still see it as a symbol of their heritage. “The evil act he had committed had robbed the good-intentioned South Carolinians who support the flag of this symbol of the heritage of service,” Haley wrote. “He had encouraged everyone’s worst stereotype for our state. Clearly, something had to be done. But at the same time, I worried that allowing the killer to define what the flag represented for everyone was a surrender.”
Ross Ward, a Republican who ran for a South Carolina House seat in 2022, told HuffPost at Haley’s February campaign launch in Charleston that he was upset with how the flag was talked about during its removal and didn’t like how Haley handled it as governor.
“You’re saying that the Confederacy was racist, and that hurts me on a lot of levels,” he said. “Could we have changed it at some point? Perhaps. I know it offends some people, and I don’t want to hurt people on that level. However, that is history, and we can’t erase history.”
Greg Perry, the former chairman of the Charleston Democratic Party and only the second person of color to ever lead that group, told HuffPost he was worshipping at a nearby church when he learned of the shooting at Mother Emanuel. At another church service that Sunday, “my eyes filled with water out of fear that someone with hatred in their heart, because of the color of my skin, could just come in and take my life,” he said. “That fear has never left me.”
Much of the flag saga had predated Haley’s time in office. By the time Haley became governor in 2011, the Confederate flag had been flying at the capitol for 50 years. In 2000, lawmakers reached an agreement to move it from its prominent spot on the state house dome to a ground-level monument for Confederate soldiers.
“The flag had the backing of white religion, white business people and white women, and it lost the support of all of those people in the 1990s,” said Thomas Brown, a professor at the University of South Carolina and the author of a book on Confederate monuments who cited the NCAA’s prominent boycott of the state over the flag.
Running for governor, Haley vowed not to reignite the flag issue, which lawmakers had agreed to stop discussing after the monument compromise. But the 2015 murder of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney and eight others in Charleston gave the debate new immediacy. Haley was getting squeezed to take action. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, called for the Confederate banner to come down. Not long after the shooting, Haley added her voice to those calls.
Tyler Jones, a consultant who served as the political director for the House Democratic legislative caucus when the flag fell, described it as the “bow on the top of [Haley’s] career... A lot of us in South Carolina when that happened looked at each other and said she could be president now. This was a very historic move, and it could position her perfectly in a general election. But as we’re seeing now, she doesn’t want to talk about it in this primary.”
That Haley’s decision on the flag boosted her profile within her own party then speaks to how much the GOP later changed under Trump. Whereas in 2015, Haley was celebrated for working with Democrats and demonstrating a moderate backbone, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is currently second behind Trump in a hypothetical primary matchup because he steamrolled opponents to make Florida the epicenter of the nation’s culture wars. Haley, meanwhile, is polling in single digits very early in the race, and is tied with DeSantis in South Carolina.
“Things have gotten worse, and it’s the rhetoric used in politics now,” said former South Carolina state Rep. Gary Clary, the first Republican to sign onto Brannon’s bill to remove the flag. Clary doubts whether Republican lawmakers would act as decisively on the flag today. “You’ve got plenty of angry people walking around, and some of them are serving in elected positions.”
Other Republicans told HuffPost that Haley doesn’t deserve nearly as much credit as she’s gotten for the flag coming down, and that the real courageous actors were Republicans from very conservative areas who ended their careers to get it done.
“I’m thankful that she has kinda backed off, because there was a time when Nikki said, ‘The flag came down. Look what I did. That flag is gone.’ Nikki didn’t do that,” said Brannon, who does not intend to back Haley in the presidential primary.
“I believe there are absolute truths. The sky is blue. You can’t tell me that it’s any other color but blue,” he said. “There was a time when Nikki stood up and said ‘never Trump’ and then became one of his biggest supporters. In my opinion ... Nikki might tell you the sky is not blue.”