Is South Carolina’s Nikki Haley in Trouble?

by Stuart Rothenberg September 18, 2013 · 2:19 PM EDT

If you listen to South Carolina Democrats, you are pretty certain that Republican Gov. Nikki R. Haley is in deep trouble next year. Not so, says Haley’s top strategist, Jon Lerner, arguing she is very likely to win re-election. Both assessments can’t be correct, can they?

“Despite bringing in 3 big-name out-of-state governors to help her build a crowd, Nikki Haley barely turned out more supporters than protesters for her big re-election announcement in deep-red Greenville County yesterday,” wrote South Carolina Democratic Party Communications Director Kristin Sosanie just after Haley announced her bid for a second term last month.

The Democratic state party’s press release went on to describe Haley’s crowd as “anemic” and to list her “failures,” including “making South Carolina one of the hardest places to earn a living” and “hiding a TB outbreak at a public school.” The release also noted that state “tax information was hacked and stolen” under Haley’s watch.

In a lengthy memo dated a few days before the Democratic press release, GOP consultant Lerner cited a number of reasons Haley is “likely to win the 2014 election comfortably.” Among other things, he noted her stronger financial position than in 2010, a unified Republican Party and her accomplishments and incumbency.

Haley, 41, will almost certainly face the same opponent she beat last time, Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, 42.

In 2010, she won by just 4.5 points (51.4 percent to 46.9 percent). Democrats note the narrow margin, while Republicans argue that Haley had to overcome many disadvantages to get elected as the state’s first female and first minority governor.

Lerner actually argues in his memo that the ’10 race was “not close.” He cites nine gubernatorial contests that were closer that year and points out that Barack Obama’s margin in the 2012 presidential race was closer than Haley’s was in her first race.

That’s true, of course, but all of the other close gubernatorial races that Lerner cites occurred in Democratic states or competitive ones. The huge anti-Obama wave of 2010 helped Republicans get close or win narrowly in difficult states, and all things being equal, it should have helped Haley in reliably Republican South Carolina. But of course, all things weren’t equal in the state at the time, given then-Gov. Mark Sanford’s problems, which could have muted the national wave.

But in other ways, Lerner’s argument is stronger and difficult to dismiss. Haley will have better funding and the state Chamber of Commerce will not be against her this time, as it was in 2010 when it endorsed Sheheen. And while 2014 isn’t likely to be as good a year nationally for her party as 2010 was, a second midterm election with Obama in the White House should still favor the GOP.

State Republicans surely will seek to tie Sheheen to the president’s positions and policies on issues such as health care, guns and even immigration, and, as one Democrat joked, they will label him a “liberal, job-killing, pro-Obama trial lawyer.”

But Haley’s efforts to force recorded votes in the legislature — something that was rarely done until it was instituted early in her governorship — should give the Republican’s campaign more ammunition against the challenger. And a fight between the National Labor Relations Board and Boeing over the company’s actions in its Charleston plant will be an asset for Haley.

Of course, Haley now has a record as governor that Democrats can pick at, including an unemployment rate that is lower than when she took office but is still at about 8 percent. And while Republicans see her race and gender as things she needed to overcome in 2010, Democrats believe that they were assets for her last time around.

“She is a very good candidate,” admitted one Democrat, “but her ethnicity and gender worked for her. She was something of a novelty last time, and she drew sympathy as a ‘wronged woman’ when nasty accusations surfaced about her private life.”

But if Sheheen is going to upset Haley, he’ll need to tap (or, possibly, even create) the sense that Republicans have been in complete power in the state for too long. “They are arrogant and are mailing it in” is the way one Democrat put it.

Early public polling suggests a competitive race. An April 2013 Winthrop University poll found the governor’s job rating at 45 percent approve/39 percent disapprove among registered voters, and a December 2012 survey by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found Sheheen leading Haley by a statistically insignificant 2 points, 46 percent to 44 percent.

But early polling can be deceptive. President Obama drew 44 percent and 45 percent in his two presidential races, and Sheheen drew almost 47 percent in 2010. So a capable Democrat running a competitive race should get at least in the mid-40s. But Republicans go further. They insist that public polls simply are wrong.

The problem for any Democrat running statewide is getting well above the party’s base, with each additional percentage dramatically more difficult to attract than the previous percentage.

As one Republican commented, “Structurally, because of the large black vote and the Democratic base, it’s hard for a Republican to get great ratings [as Republicans do in places in Wyoming or Utah].”

So where does the race start? Haley certainly deserves to be favored, and she may well win “comfortably.” But at this point, the race looks competitive and is worth watching. Still, Democrats shouldn’t kid themselves about Sheheen’s prospects. He definitely starts as an underdog.