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Do South Carolina Primaries Foreshadow Shifting Political Priorities?

June 23, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Nikki Haley was one of two conservative minority Republicans to post primary wins in South Carolina, thanks to strong backing from tea party voters. Judy Woodruff talks to two political watchers about what those wins mean for the general election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And for more on the primaries and the historical results in South Carolina, we’re joined by Amy Walter, editor in chief of The Hotline, “National Journal”‘s political daily, and Adolphus Belk Jr. He’s a professor of political science and African-American studies at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. He joins us now from Charlotte, North Carolina.

Thank you, both, for being with us.

Amy Walter, to you first, and focusing on South Carolina. An African-American being nominated for a congressional seat, an Indian-American woman for governor — so, was this about race, gender, or about the Tea Party movement that was endorsing both of them?

AMY WALTER, editor in chief, The Hotline: Well, I think there are a lot of things going on here. And it’s always — it’s never as simple as it seems on paper.

I mean, in some ways, Tim Scott, the man who now is more than likely to come to Congress — he sits in a very Republican district — was essentially part of the establishment. He was a sitting state legislator. He was very well liked by the folks in the sort of Republican establishment, in the business community. He got support both from conservatives on the social end of the spectrum, as well as conservatives on the fiscal end.

Nikki Haley, of course, started off as the total underdog, which she mentions in the setup piece, and yet, in the end, she also got the support from folks like Mitt Romney, Jenny Sanford, the former first — the current first lady, as well as Sarah Palin.

But I think the most important thing for South Carolina is, after what has been a year-and-a-half or so of pretty embarrassing situations, whether it was the Appalachian Trail, we certainly had the stories then in this primary, they finally now, the South Carolina Republican Party hoping to get its reputation back.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Adolphus Belk, how much was gender an issue in the Nikki Haley story here?

ADOLPHUS BELK JR., Winthrop University: I think if you look at the races that involve both state Representative Haley and state Representative Scott, both candidates really de-emphasized race and ethnicity.

They didn’t run campaigns that drew attention to the historic nature of what they were trying to do. Rather, they ran on some pretty conservative lines, talking about shrinking the size of government, making government more accountable to the people through transparency, and really reemphasizing a number of standard Republican talking points, rather than talking about their race or their ethnicity or religious background.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Adolphus Belk, staying with you, what do these results say, if anything, about attitudes toward race and gender in your state?

ADOLPHUS BELK JR.: I think there are some ways that race, gender, ethnicity, religion still matter and influence politics a great deal. I think there are some instances where those things matter a little bit less.

The victories by Haley and Scott are significant because they were — they had a lot of advantages — or they had a lot of things that they had to overcome, rather. So, if we look at Representative Haley, she was probably the fourth candidate in the field. She wasn’t well known across the entire state, while the others had been elected to statewide office, and she had difficulty raising money.

We look at Representative Scott, he knocked off two huge names in South Carolina politics, facing, one, the son of a former governor in Carroll Campbell, and the son of a former governor and U.S. senator in Strom Thurmond.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Amy Walter, what are the prospects of both of these candidates in November?

AMY WALTER: They’re still very good. And South Carolina has — it’s been a while, but in — the last time they had a Democratic governor was back in 2002.

I think that the question for Nikki Haley and the problem for Nikki Haley, of course, is you’re looking forward now. People are already projecting on to her, what is she going to be in 2012? What is she going to be in 2011? Is she going to be the face of the Republican Party? Is she going to — and we have already heard her mentioned now, could she be a vice presidential pick? Will she be the keynote speaker at the 2012 Republican Convention?

So, she has be very careful to take this one step at a time, look like she’s not already going for the next big — big job, and to focus on what she needs to focus on, which is the state of South Carolina.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Adolphus Belk, we are watching here the thread of this story that has to do with rejecting anybody connected to Washington, anybody connected in a couple of these instances — in the Haley contest, she was running against a congressman who had voted for the bank bailout.

And this has happened in a couple of other races around the country. To what extent do you feel in South Carolina the role of the Tea Party movement?

ADOLPHUS BELK JR.: South Carolina is a small state of about 4.5 million people. And so, in a state like South Carolina that drifts conservative to begin with, the Tea Party has had a greater influence than it has had in other parts of our country, where politics are a little bit different.

I will say this about state Representative Haley. There are a lot of questions about how she’s going to govern, because there are some Republicans in the state that had a rather acrimonious relationship with Governor Sanford, even though they were of the same party, and they spent eight years fighting and going over vetoes and overriding vetoes and things of that sort.

Governor Haley would inherit a state that’s looking at a projected $1.3 billion budget deficit for fiscal year 2011, a state that has an 11 percent unemployment rate, which is higher than the national average of 9.7 percent, and a state where, according to a Winthrop University poll, one in five residents is worried about running out of food before being able to buy more.

So, those are some serious problems that the next governor will have to address.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that will be on the minds of voters as they go to the polls in November.

AMY WALTER: Absolutely. And they are going to be looking very closely at that.

And South Carolina becomes — just taking it out from a national perspective, South Carolina, obviously, very important, too, as we go and look forward to 2012. For Republicans, this has been traditionally the place where presidential candidates, if they make it here, they can sort of make it anywhere. Can you break through in South Carolina?

Mitt Romney — it’s funny. We hear a lot about Sarah Palin, that she was sort of the boost here for Nikki Haley. And, at the same time, Mitt Romney was the one who came out early when she was fourth in the polls.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And endorsed her.

AMY WALTER: Endorsed her. He raised money for her. He was the person in that last weekend before the election campaigning with her. Certainly, he’s, I’m sure, going to be looking to remind her of that in 2012.

A lot of people are going to be coming into that state in the next couple of years, Republicans coming in there, looking for support, and certainly somebody like Romney hoping that he can cash in there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Adolphus Belk, at a time like this, how much awareness, consciousness is there in South Carolina among the electorate about the fact that your state is so early in the presidential picking, coming around every four years? And was that a factor?

ADOLPHUS BELK JR.: Well, South Carolina has been particularly impactful when we look at the role that the state has played in the Republican presidential primaries.

The person that has won the primary in South Carolina has gone on to win the Republican nomination going all the way back to Ronald Reagan. So, South Carolina, in a lot of ways, has been a kingmaker. And, so, I think there’s going to be a lot of interest in South Carolina, particularly if state Representative Haley is able to beat state Senator Sheheen to see who she might back going into a Republican presidential primary in 2012.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we’re going to leave it there.

Adolphus Belk with Winthrop University, and Amy Walter with The Hotline, thank you both.

AMY WALTER: Thank you.