Nikki Haley became South Carolina's first Republican woman nominated for governor Tuesday.
Her win came as she rode the public backlash against the state's notoriously rough-and-tumble politics and with the backing of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and popular former South Carolina first lady Jenny Sanford. In her three House terms, she has been known as a close ally of Gov. Mark Sanford and a boat-rocker who sparred with leadership.
It was a winning mix in a year where tea party activists and GOP conservatives are anxious to reshape the Republican Party. Now she'll face Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen to succeed term-limited Gov. Mark Sanford.
Haley, a Bamberg native and daughter of Indian immigrants, celebrated the victory at the State Museum, not far from a room at the museum housing Civil War relics and a few blocks from the Confederate flag fluttering at the Statehouse grounds.
Haley was battered by unsubstantiated allegations by a Columbia blogger and a lobbyist that she'd had affairs with them. The married mother of two categorically denied the claims and said they came from her opponents. Then, state Sen. Jake Knotts was reprimanded by GOP leaders earlier this month after he referred to Haley with the derogatory term "raghead," saying: "We've got a raghead in Washington, we don't need a raghead in the Statehouse."
Haley brushed aside the aspersions and handily beat three men in the primary, but fell 4,800 votes shy of winning the nomination outright on June 8. While she failed to gain a majority she picked up traction among influential Republicans and stressed a return to conservative basics instead of blind faith in the Republican label.
Tuesday night, preliminary results showed Haley leading with 63 percent of the votes to 37 percent for U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett. While Barrett had persistently raised more money than Haley, the allegations of the affair coupled with the historic nature of her candidacy left him a long shot. He finished the June 8 primary a distant second at 22 percent and said he'd accept divine intervention to close that 27 percent deficit in the runoff.
While Barrett had been angling for months for a runoff berth with any other candidate, Barrett campaign manager Luke Byars said they ended up with a contest no one expected and gap that couldn't be overcome. "It's very difficult to do that when you're faced with an electorate out there being told by the national press corps and everyone else that the race is over," Byars said.
Haley allies early this year put up ads criticizing Barrett for supporting the Bush administration's federal bank bailout in 2008. It had been a sore spot for Barrett, who was booed at a tea party rally last year for that vote, and Barrett's opponents seized on the issue.
"Even thought he's one of most conservative members of Congress — he was a member of Congress. And this year it's tough to be a member of Congress running for anything — even re-election," Byars said.