Could Nikki Haley Be the GOP’s Obama? Yes, She Can

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Photo: Chris Keane/Getty Images

Despite two allegations of extramarital adventures, Nikki Haley, a 38-year-old state legislator and one of Sarah Palin’s anointed “grizzly mamas,” became South Carolina’s GOP nominee for governor last night. The party has pinned enormous hopes on her. (“Haley-Jindal 2016 anyone?” asks The Wall Street Journal.) And barring any extraordinary developments, she should get the job this fall and become the first female governor in the state’s history.

As a superficial matter, it’s tempting to draw parallels between Haley and Palin. Both are good-looking moms who rose through their state's political system with all the right conservative bona fides (pro-life, anti-spending, pro-Arizona-immigration-laws, check, check, check). But the best analogy to the Nikki Haley phenomenon isn’t Sarah Palin. As much as she’d chafe at the comparison, it’s really Barack Obama.

Haley has suddenly gone from being a three-term state legislator to a nationally prominent politician. She speaks well and looks terrific on TV. She’s young and has two young, telegenic children, and she stands out in a party of dreary white men. Sound like anyone else you know?

But more to the point, Haley, like Obama, has an extraordinary ethnic heritage, which was both a liability and an asset during her campaign. Born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa — her parents immigrated from Amritsar, India, in 1963 — Haley often heard her full name on the campaign trail, just as Barack Hussein Obama did, when someone wanted to make the not-so-subtle point that perhaps she was insufficiently American for the job. (One difference is in their middle names — hers generated the least suspicion, and his the most.) Born a Sikh but a convert to Methodism in her early 20s, Haley heard plenty of questions about her commitment to her Christian faith, just as Obama did. Indeed, Jake Knotts, the bozo state senator who called Haley a “raghead,” called the president the same thing: “We’ve already got a raghead in the White House; we don’t need another raghead in the governor’s mansion.” And both ultimately attempted to debunk these myths through webpages — Obama with “fight the smears,” and Haley with “truth in facts.”

In the end, Haley seems to have had more success at keeping the xenophobic and racist elements at bay — it’s hard to imagine a birther movement springing up around her — perhaps because she emphasized her assimilated identity on the campaign trail, while Obama presented himself as more of a polyglot. If an Indian-American woman chose Christianity and chose to be called Nikki and trumpeted immigration reform, by golly, she must mean it. But both candidates allowed people to pride themselves on their open-mindedness when they cast their votes. It was one of the many implied phrases after Yes We Can (vote for a black candidate). Self-congratulation is rampant in the conservative blogosphere today. "What a great day for the Republican voters of S. Carolina to shatter all of the arrogant liberal stereotypes," reads a typical comment on redstate.com.

At this point in Haley's career, she is more or less where Obama was when he gave his famous speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. Her appearances on the campaign trail and the Tea Party circuit have shown that she is a dynamic speaker but leave open the question of how effective she will be at governing — and whether her similarities to Obama are more than just skin-deep.