How Nikki Haley—With Help—Made South Carolina an Economic ‘Beast of the Southeast’

Reminding South Carolina voters of her accomplishments as governor is important as Haley tries to avoid an electoral embarrassment in her home state.
Reminding South Carolina voters of her accomplishments as governor is important as Haley tries to avoid an electoral embarrassment in her home state.

Summary

The former governor is selling her record on jobs in a long-shot bid against Donald Trump for the GOP nomination.

Nikki Haley mentions the “Beast of the Southeast" at virtually every campaign stop in her underdog effort to try to stop Donald Trump from winning the Republican presidential nomination.

The phrase, which an industry trade publication used in 2013 to describe South Carolina’s robust economic development during her governorship, is a badge of honor for Haley as she explains how her state’s unemployment dropped from 10.8% to 4.4% under her watch.

“By the time I left, we were building planes with Boeing, we were building more BMWs than any place in the world, we brought in Mercedes-Benz, we brought in Volvo," she said at a recent appearance ahead of the state’s Saturday GOP primary. “They were referring to us as the ‘Beast of the Southeast.’"

Reminding South Carolina voters of her accomplishments as governor is important as Haley tries to avoid an electoral embarrassment in her home state. The state’s rapid growth—the number of registered voters grew roughly 587,000 between the 2016 and 2022 general elections—means she needs to tell many new voters about the economic growth she oversaw.

Even voters who remember her tenure fondly aren’t necessarily on her side in the primary. An early February CBS News/YouGov poll of the state’s Republicans found 60% of respondents approved of Haley’s performance as governor, while 82% approved of Trump’s presidential record. In the primary matchup, Trump led Haley, 65% to 30%.

There is no question Haley’s governorship was friendly to business expansion and unfriendly to organized labor. But she doesn’t get all the credit for the economic growth, with good timing and other factors also playing roles.

When Haley entered office in 2011, double-digit unemployment was just starting to drop following the end of a recession, her predecessor and state legislative leaders had closed a deal for a sprawling Boeing factory, and Americans were increasingly moving to the Sunbelt.

A Wall Street Journal analysis of gross domestic product growth during Haley’s tenure shows there was an even bigger economic beast in the Southeast than South Carolina.

From 2011 through 2016—her last full year before leaving to become Trump’s first United Nations ambassador—South Carolina’s real GDP growth was in the middle when compared with its two neighbors, data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis shows. Georgia grew by 14.8%, followed by South Carolina at 12.5% and North Carolina at 9%.

The highest-profile economic project Haley was a part of was the expansion of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner production facility in North Charleston. As a state legislator and candidate for governor, she supported a 2009 economic-development package for the company valued at as much as $900 million that helped land the project. A few years later as governor, she signed into law an additional $120 million for the aerospace company for an expansion.

In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, Haley argued she deserves a good share of credit for Boeing jobs created in South Carolina, even though the original deal was signed into law by her predecessor, former Gov. Mark Sanford.

“We did the ribbon-cutting and that’s when the National Labor Relations Board tried to shut Boeing down because they said we were hurting workers in Washington state," she said. “I took on the National Labor Relations Board. We won that case and since then, I expanded, expanded, expanded Boeing multiple times."

When the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers unsuccessfully tried to organize the factory, Haley led the opposition, saying she wore high heels not for fashion, but to kick out unions. She accepted a seat on Boeing’s board of directors shortly after leaving the Trump administration.

During Haley’s childhood, South Carolina was a major textile and apparel producer. But those industries collapsed under increased competition, automation and trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In 1992, South Carolina received a major boost when BMW said it would locate its first American factory in the state’s Upstate region, between Greenville and Spartanburg. That facility now employs 11,000.

Parts manufacturers and suppliers sprang up around the BMW plant in an area that was already a growing tire manufacturing hub.

During Haley’s tenure as governor, her campaign says 86,000 jobs were created, 672 projects were announced and $21.5 billion in capital investments were made. She also pushed for fewer regulations, lower taxes and training for workers for the jobs that were emerging.

Trump’s campaign has suggested Haley was overly welcoming to Chinese companies looking to expand in South Carolina, in contrast with her more hawkish stance now. “Nikki Haley is owned by communist China!" Trump wrote on social media earlier this month.

In the interview, Haley said Chinese investment was a very small slice of the jobs added during her tenure and that it was a different era.

“No one had notified us about any sort of threats with China," she said. “The reality hit when I got to the United Nations and you saw it."

Lewis Gossett, former chief executive of the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance and someone who worked with Haley and her administration on economic development, said she deserves substantial credit for the jobs that were added during her tenure.

“She can be as tough as anybody you’ll ever meet, but also be as friendly and charming as anybody you’ll ever meet, and both those things are needed in economic development," he said.

Haley was known for her hands-on approach in trying to recruit companies.

Arnold Kamler, CEO of bicycle maker Kent International Inc., said he first met Haley in 2013 at a Walmart conference in Florida that brought together state officials, top suppliers and representatives from the retailing giant.

Kamler said Haley wrote her cellphone number on a piece of paper and handed it to him, before explaining her state already made airplanes and cars. “I want to tell the kids we have a bicycle factory," the CEO recalled her saying.

After searching South Carolina for a suitable place for his new factory, Kamler said he finally found an empty building that fit his needs. The only problem was it lacked a natural gas line he needed to operate the facility.

One evening while having dinner, Kamler said his cellphone rang and he was told Haley was on the line and wanted to speak to him. He said she asked if he would build his factory in South Carolina, if she got the state to pay for the gas line. “I said yes," Kamler said.

The factory, which opened in 2014, now employs about 125 people and is the largest bike factory in the U.S.

“The country would be in much better shape if she were the next president, instead of either Trump or Biden," said Kamler, who can’t vote in the South Carolina primary because he doesn’t live in the state.

Scott Huffmon, a political-science professor at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., said Haley isn’t getting much credit for her economic record because the GOP is so different from when she was governor and now is centered on fealty to Trump.

“The Republican Party in South Carolina that produced and supported Haley has, like the GOP across the country, fundamentally changed," said Huffmon, who also directs his school’s Winthrop Poll. “Her conservative governance is no longer a measure of a good Republican."

Write to John McCormick at mccormick.john@wsj.com

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