A powerful veep audition for GOP Governor Nikki Haley
For the third year in a row, the GOP has selected a woman to deliver the televised response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address. This year South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley was selected to help bolster women’s support of the GOP.
With former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton regarded as the likely Democratic presidential nominee, 2016 is an election year where gender matters. Haley’s rebuttal looks like a test for the GOP vice presidential slot, particularly because she hails from the first Southern state to hold a presidential primary, on Feb. 20.
As a person of color who embraces tolerance, Haley can also counter some of the Republican presidential candidates’ proudly divisive comments about immigrants and minority communities. She might even help distract voters from the overt sexism now displayed in the Republican presidential nomination race.
During her rebuttal on Tuesday, Haley gave a nod to the importance of gender in this race: “Our forefathers paved the way for us. Let’s take their values, and their strengths, and rededicate ourselves to doing whatever it takes to keep America the greatest country in the history of man. And woman.”
It is no secret that the Republican Party has issues with women.
Republicans have lost the female vote in every presidential election since 1988. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study of partisanship, 52 percent of women identify as Democrats versus 36 percent who identify as Republican. Compare this to the 44 percent and 43 percent of men who identify as Democrats and Republicans, respectively.
One key reason many women turn to the Democratic Party is the GOP’s policy positions. In recent years, Republicans have passed more than 200 bills limiting abortion rights. Many in the GOP have supported a deceptive campaign against Planned Parenthood that has been linked to a shooting at a Colorado women’s health clinic, where three people were killed. Republicans also voted unanimously against the Paycheck Fairness Act, intended to address the persistent gender gap in wages. (White women make 78 cents for every dollar a white man makes, while black women make 64 cents, and Latinas make 54 cents.)
Many women also vote Democratic because of overt sexism within the GOP.
Take Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. Trump called Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly a “bimbo” after she called him out during a debate for previously referring to women as “fat pigs” and “dogs.” When pressed on this, Trump responded with a menstruation joke that Kelly “had blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” Of fellow candidate Carly Fiorina, Trump said “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!”
In the past, Trump has regularly objectified women, telling Esquire magazine, “It doesn’t really matter what [the media] write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.” He described Clinton’s slow return from the restroom after a break during a Democratic presidential debate as “disgusting,” told reporters that Clinton got “schlonged” by Obama in 2008 (schlong is a Yiddish word meaning “penis”), and has joked about wanting to date his daughter because “she has the best body.”
But Trump is not the only GOP presidential candidate who has displayed retrograde views of women. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida wants to outlaw abortions even in cases of rape and incest. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee defended the government of Paraguay for forcing a 10-year-old rape survivor to bear a child. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush told a campaign gathering, “I’m not sure we need a half a billion dollars for women’s health issues,” — though he later backed away this.
Can Haley distract from this? Yes.
Born Nimrata “Nikki” Randhawa, Haley is the first woman and first minority governor of South Carolina. Her nickname, “Nikki,” means “little one,” a deceptive diminutive given her swift and formidable political rise. Haley drew the interest of national party leaders during her gubernatorial race in 2010 when she defeated a crowd of better-known, white male candidates in the primary. She also weathered baseless allegations of infidelity and ethical violations to win the general election.
Haley attracted widespread national attention last June, in the wake of the Charleston church massacre, when she asked the state legislature to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol grounds. Flanked by African-American leaders, Haley publicly delivered this request with emotional grace at a press conference. Haley nimbly walked the tightrope between acknowledging the positive meaning of the flag to many while demanding its removal. “That flag,” Haley stated, “while an integral part of our past, does not reflect the future of our great state.”
It would be a smart move for the GOP to nominate a female vice presidential candidate, said California State University, San Bernardino, political scientist Meredith Conroy. “Haley will serve as an appropriate attack dog for the Republican Party,” Conroy said, “whereas a man going after Hillary would be more open to criticism of sexism. I think her selection is related to her sex, but more so because the GOP’s goal is to defeat Hillary in 2016, and Haley is a safe person to lead any criticism.”
The GOP needs to rebrand itself in order to maintain electoral viability in the face of shifting demographics, and a female candidate of color broadens the party appeal in significant ways.
The Republican Party chose Haley, according to Lara Brown, program director for George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, to “show that women matter in GOP politics…. And it doesn’t hurt that Haley is of Indian descent because it gives the GOP a claim to greater diversity in the party.”
There are other viable female vice presidential contenders, but Haley is the strongest.
Fiorina has had remarkably strong debate performances, but they have not translated into public support. Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire is another strong contender, but she is expecting a tough re-election race that makes her a less feasible national candidate. Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, a veteran, gained national recognition after her well-received 2014 State of the Union rebuttal, but she will likely face criticism about her relative inexperience.
All these candidates will appeal to women, but Haley has the intersectional appeal of both race and gender. New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez has the same advantage and was considered to be on the top of the vice presidential list until the FBI opened an investigation into her fundraising activities. There has also been growing controversy about a scandal involving her secretary of state.
There’s no doubt that Haley is a conservative Republican. She took a public stand against resettling Syrian refugees in her state, opposed Obamacare and passed some of the most restrictive immigration laws in the United States. But her rhetoric of inclusion and removal of the Confederate battle flag could make her a powerful force in reshaping perceptions that the GOP is not the party for women.