In the wake of the 2015 mass shooting that killed nine Black churchgoers at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Nikki Haley, then the state’s governor, attended service there. It was Sunday, several days after the tragedy, and images had been circulating of the killer with the Confederate flag—a banner that still flew on the grounds of the state capitol.
After the service, Haley told her team she intended to call for the removal of the Confederate flag from the capitol, according to Rob Godfrey, then her deputy chief of staff. She would ask lawmakers and community leaders to join her for a news conference, she said, but she wasn’t sure how many would show up. In the end, she convinced a bipartisan group of lawmakers including the son of Strom Thurmond, the infamous segregationist, to join her. The next month, the legislature passed a bill to take down the flag.
“She brought those people together to give Republicans cover to do the hard work that it was going to take to work together with their colleagues to pass the bill to remove the flag,” Godfrey says. “It’s something that history will judge her well by, and I think that it’s something that voters will always have in mind when they think of her.”
That decision Haley made eight years ago embodies both the strengths and vulnerabilities of her presidential candidacy, which she launched Tuesday morning, becoming the first major challenger to former President Donald Trump in the Republican primary. The former governor enters the race as a candidate who aims to unite the GOP’s warring factions and usher in a new generation of the party’s leadership, but whose history in a deep-red state could also set her at odds with the party’s far-right flank.
Haley does not mention the Confederate flag in her announcement video, but does reference her leadership during the shooting. “When evil did come,” Haley says, her voiceover interspersed with clips of Mother Emanuel, “We turned away from fear, toward God and the values that still make our country the freest and greatest in the world.”
“We must turn in that direction again,” she continues. “Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven out of the last eight presidential elections. That has to change.”
Haley may use her Confederate flag decision and the aftermath of the Charleston shooting to draw contrasts with Trump. Where Trump has often doubled down on right-wing talking points and sown division in moments of racial unrest, arguably the defining moment of Haley’s governorship involved finding common ground between members of both parties to remove what many see as a racist symbol. Such an agreement had seemed impossible; fifteen years earlier, South Carolina’s Democratic governor had signed a compromise that lowered the flag from the Capitol dome, but left it flying at a monument in front of the building because of pushback from the flag’s supporters.
“Following the tragedy, it was really Nikki Haley’s leadership that got it over the line—other governors had tried and failed,” says Alex Stroman, who previously served as executive director of the South Carolina GOP. “It kind of captures her diplomacy in navigating tough issues and getting things done, by having people come on board who were initially completely opposed to bringing the Confederate flag down.”
But the show of unity Haley achieved in 2015 might be even harder to fathom today. Mass shootings have come and gone with little more than bickering between Republicans and Democrats about gun laws, and Confederate monuments have become ammunition in the culture wars.
A former Trump Administration official says questions about the Confederate flag no longer divide the party and candidates shouldn’t attack Haley on the decision. “I don’t think Trump is going to attack her for that,” the former official says. But the official suggests that Haley could be vulnerable on cultural and racial issues, including attacks portraying her as liberal on the Black Lives Matter movement. Haley herself touched on those controversies in her announcement video. “Some think our ideas are not just wrong, but racist and evil,” she says over clips depicting racial justice protests. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Even if Haley does field attacks on the Confederate flag, others say they are unlikely to erode her support. “There’s a pocket of Trump’s base who probably still love the flag,” Stroman says. “But those people were not going to vote for Nikki Haley anyway.”
Soon after Haley made her announcement Tuesday morning, Trump posted on TRUTH Social, “Doing great in poll numbers. Leading all Republicans by a lot …” adding that his critics would step up attacks “in the hope that I will be damaged enough to allow a RINO, or Biden, to ‘slip through the cracks.’ But be careful, the American people get it, and don’t like what they are seeing. MAGA!!!” The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
According to one South Carolina Republican strategist, Haley’s decision on the Confederate flag is starting to become a distant memory. Polling across the state, the strategist says, frequently asks voters if they want a “conservative fighter” or “someone who gets things done.” Increasingly, according to the strategist, voters are opting for the conservative fighter rather than the leader who could build a coalition to create change. In 2016, Trump won the state’s crowded primary with nearly a third of the vote, and handily won the state’s general elections in both 2016 and 2020. A South Carolina poll conducted last month by the Trafalgar Group indicated a significant share of the state’s voters supported Trump over Haley, with the margin depending on which other candidates join the race.
E]ven Haley has acknowledged the politics of the decision have shifted, and she faced accusations during the Trump presidency, during which she served as ambassador to the United Nations, of revising her stance on the Confederate flag. In 2019, Haley drew controversy when she told conservative commentator Glenn Beck that the Charleston mass shooter had “hijacked” the meaning of the flag, which she said some South Carolininans saw as a symbol of “service, sacrifice and heritage.” Critics suggested that the Trump years had changed her. But Haley suggested that it was the country that had changed.
In a Washington Post opinion piece days later, Haley said she also mentioned some South Carolinians’ positive feelings towards the flag the day she called for its removal. She wrote, “I said much of the same thing I said that day and have said countless times since. But the reaction has been very different. Today’s outrage culture does not allow any gestures to the other side. It demands that we declare winners and losers.”
“That attitude comes at a big price,” she continued. “Sadly, I’m not sure that in today’s political climate we would have been able to remove the flag.”
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