South Carolina State Senator Jake Knotts made national headlines last week when he said in a radio interview: “We already got one raghead in the White House, we don’t need a raghead in the governor’s mansion.” Knotts was referring to President Obama, who he obviously believes is a Muslim, and SC Republican gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley, who is of Indian descent. That Knotts—a mealy-mouthed moron who looks like Boss Hogg—would criticize anyone’s ethnicity or appearance is amusing. That Knotts and so many other SC Republicans would attack Haley as viciously as they have, tells you all you need to know about that state’s politics—or the state of politics in general.
The last time Knotts made national headlines, he was grinning ear-to-ear on CNN, FOX News and other outlets, practically giddy over Governor Mark Sanford’s admission of adultery. One of the first to call for the governor’s resignation and like most SC Republicans, Knotts had long been at war with Sanford, whose pesky habit of demanding government accountability and fiscal responsibility had ticked off a GOP dominated state legislature accustomed to being as unaccountable and as irresponsible as they pleased. The same Knotts and the same GOP legislature have long had the same antipathy toward Haley who is widely seen as the handpicked successor to Sanford—and she has caused as much friction since the day she stepped foot in state government. Haley entered the governor’s race last year with the least famous name, the least amount of money and was last in the polls. Haley has not only been attacked by Knotts, but more famously by two prominent SC politicos who claimed to have had sexual affairs with the married mother of two, something she has emphatically denied and for which her accusers have yet to offer any solid proof. Despite, hell, high water and haters galore, as of this writing it is the eve of the June 8 SC primaries—and Haley is first in the polls with a shocking double digit lead.
The political upheaval occurring in SC at the moment is a microcosm of disenchantment with the status quo nationwide, where the old Republican guard is shocked to learn that voters are finally beginning to take conservative rhetoric—to date, just a campaign tool—seriously. Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio in Florida basically forced Gov. Charlie Crist out of the GOP in that Senate race. That decades-long US Senator Robert Bennett of Utah had always been considered a “conservative Republican” was not enough to save him from a voting base that no longer considered him conservative enough, and effectively ended his political career in May. Two weeks later in Kentucky, Senate GOP Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and former Vice President Dick Cheney were singing the “conservative” praises of Senate candidate Trey Grayson, who was trounced in that state’s Republican primaries by a newcomer further to his Right, Rand Paul, son of libertarian godfather Ron and the Tea Party’s main man.
When Sanford was battling the Obama administration by refusing to accept federal stimulus dollars, he was not only fighting against a Democratic president but most Republicans in his own state, virtually all of whom campaigned as “conservatives.” Haley, the only SC GOP gubernatorial candidate to stand by Sanford’s rejection of the stimulus, is also being challenged by three men, all of whom claim to be “conservative Republicans.” In the past, the average Republican politician would call himself “conservative,” say the right things about guns and gays, and skate through elections where he would go on to become as fiscally liberal as any Democrat. This is certainly true of the majority of Republicans in Washington and also the majority of Republicans in SC state government, who are about as adored by their conservative base right now as their Capitol Hill counterparts.
During a Tax Day, Tea Party rally in Charleston, SC in 2009, the only two prominent Republican politicians welcome at the event were Sanford and fiscal hawk, Sen. Jim DeMint. One of Haley’s gubernatorial opponents, Congressman Gresham Barrett, attempted to attend a Tea Party in Greenville, SC that same day and was booed off stage. Like Sanford used to be, and DeMint still is, Haley has been embraced by the Tea Party. What this tells us is that whether by taking the temperature of the Tea Party or gauging the election results for candidates like Bennett, Paul and now the promising Haley—rank-and-file GOP voters are beginning to distinguish between real conservatives and conventional Republicans who use such language to pacify voters.
Haley is a prime example of this new, more genuine crop of grassroots conservative candidates, who in trying to cut through the BS has found even more of it lobbed her way and by her own party—and yet she still keeps coming out on top. The Republican establishment, whether at the national or state level, has never taken conservatism seriously and now that so many grassroots candidates and voters are, the old guard is desperate to play catch up. Too late. It’s time to mow down the old guard and let conservatism, finally, take root.