Why Black Democrats Are Unlikely to Aid Nikki Haley in South Carolina


It appeared to be Nikki Haley’s most diverse audience yet.

More than two dozen people in a crowd of about 150, gathered this month at an outdoor space in Gilbert, S.C., just 30 minutes from the South Carolina capital, were Black. They seemed enthusiastic, sporting the hot pink feather boas and cowboy hats handed out by the campaign’s “Women for Nikki” coalition.

But less than a half-hour into the rally, the Black audience members revealed themselves as protesters, affiliated with a regional union. They interrupted her stump speech multiple times, chanting “What’s disgusting? Union busting” at Ms. Haley, a former governor of South Carolina and a self-proclaimed “union buster,” before being shouted down.

The scene captured an intractable challenge for Ms. Haley heading into South Carolina’s Republican primary on Feb. 24. She could benefit from an expanded coalition — one with moderates, independents and Democrats — as she fights former President Donald J. Trump, far and away the race’s front-runner. South Carolina’s open primary system allows voters to take part in one of either party’s primary contest, and at least one organization, Primary Pivot, has been working to sway Democrats who did not vote earlier this month to cast a ballot for Ms. Haley.

But Ms. Haley’s relationship with Black voters, a key Democratic faction in the state, has been long fraught. Her presidential bid has only increased their skepticism, casting further doubt on significant partisan crossover on Saturday.

“She cast her lot in a very conservative, most right wing Republican Party when she first ran for office. She made no outreach to the African American community,” said the Rev. Joseph A. Darby, the former first vice president of the South Carolina N.A.A.C.P. who helped lead the organization during Ms. Haley’s time as governor. “I never thought that she would be one who would reach out to the Black community in a meaningful way. And she has not disappointed me in that.”

In interviews, Black leaders and voters cited a number of reasons for their lack of support, including Ms. Haley’s years-ago refusal to expand Medicaid while in office and her support for a strict abortion ban. But it is perhaps her colorblind approach to issues of race and racism that appears to have turned off Black voters the most. Much like her previous campaigns in South Carolina, Ms. Haley has talked of the need to call out racism while downplaying the pervasiveness of racism in American institutions. She points to her own political rise to reject what she describes as a “national self-loathing.”

“I don’t know any Black person that is considering voting for her,” said Monique Wilsondebriano, 49, a business owner in Charleston and a Democratic voter who said she had received Ms. Haley’s campaign texts multiple times each day. “I appreciate her efforts — and she’s trying hard — but it’s not going to make a difference at this point.”

Organizers with Primary Pivot said they, too, had been met with resistance from the Black voters who they asked to support Ms. Haley. Tiffany James, a senior adviser to the group, said many held “bitter feelings” as a result of her staunch conservative policies and failure to engage with Black communities in her state.

Besides mail and text blasts, Ms. Haley’s campaign does not appear to be courting non-Republicans, relying instead on a call for “new generational leadership” that Ms. Haley and her allies argue will resonate broadly. In an interview this month, Ms. Haley, the former United Nations ambassador under Mr. Trump, dismissed concerns that her conservative views, particularly on race and racism, would repel Black voters. She said her campaign was about “bringing people in, not pushing people away.”

One-fourth of South Carolina’s population is Black, but Black voters make up just a tiny fraction of the Republican electorate, tending instead to back Democrats. President Biden won the state’s Democratic primary on Feb. 3 by over 95 percent, a result powered in large part by support from Black voters.

A recent Monmouth University/Washington Post poll found Black, Hispanic and Asian voters made up just 8 percent of G.O.P. primary voters in South Carolina. From that electorate, Trump drew 47 percent support and Ms. Haley earned 29 percent, with 19 percent undecided.

Some Black leaders said she showed deeper empathy after the 2015 mass shooting at a historic African American church that killed nine Black parishioners. Ms. Haley went to every funeral and aided state lawmakers seeking to remove the Confederate battle flag at the South Carolina State House.

She often talks about that moment when asked about her ability to govern across party lines, saying it came just after the death of Walter Scott, the Black man who was shot and killed after a traffic stop in 2015 by what she called “a dirty cop.”

“We didn’t have riots, we had vigils,” she said at a January event in Rye, N.H. “We didn’t have protests, we had prayers, and we showed the entire country what strength and grace look like.”

But other Black leaders contend that the removal of the flag came after pressure from business leaders and top party brass as well as decades of campaigning from civil rights groups.

Her complicated relationship with race has been underscored several times throughout her campaign. Even as Mr. Trump and his supporters have made her and her family targets of racist attacks, she herself has not described them as such, saying only that she would leave that up people to decide. The former president has questioned her citizenship and path to the White House because of her Indian immigrant parents and has mocked her birth name, Nimarata Nikki Randhawa.

In December, she was widely criticized when a voter asked her to explain the causes of the Civil War and she did not mention slavery. In defending her omission during a CNN town hall before the Iowa caucuses, she used an oft-derided cliché when talking about race, saying that she had “Black friends growing up.” Weeks later, Democrats and Black leaders condemned her for arguing the United States had “never been a racist country.”

Not all Black voters have ruled her out, however. In Gilbert, where the union protesters interrupted Ms. Haley, Harry Boyd, 47, a Black Republican and program manager, said he admired Mr. Trump’s policies but saw Ms. Haley as a “breath of fresh air.” He cited her executive experience and foreign policy credentials as reasons for his support.

“I think she would be a good fit for the country,” he said.

Christopher Cameron and Ruth Igielnik contributed reporting.



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