Democrat seeks to topple Nikki Haley without sounding too much like a Democrat

Chris Moody
Political Reporter
The Ticket

COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, who is planning to challenge Republican Gov. Nikki Haley in 2014, says he wants nothing to do with Washington—but not in quite the same way Haley does.

"I don't keep up with what's going on nationally," Sheheen told Yahoo News in an interview earlier this month at the headquarters of the state Democratic Party.

Does he support the push for federal immigration reform currently going through Congress? "I don't really know enough about that to tell you."

What's his specific plan to implement the national health care law that passed in 2010? "I can't give you a detailed answer because I haven't studied it."

Sheheen, 42, a tall, floppy-haired, half-Lebanese, half-Italian lawmaker with an easygoing drawl, isn't clueless. His hesitancy to talk about Washington's priorities is part of an intentional effort to cast his opponent as an out-of-touch state executive who cares more about what's happening along the banks of the Potomac than at home along the Santee.

Since moving into the governor's mansion, Haley has become a nationally renowned conservative icon despite tepid approval ratings at home. Among South Carolina adults, Haley had a statewide approval rating of 43.5 percent and a disapproval rating of 36.6 percent, according to a Winthrop University poll conducted in April. The same poll taken a year earlier showed her with 37.3 percent approval.

But Haley is wildly popular on the right and enjoys nearly 70 percent approval among Republican and Republican-leaning voters in South Carolina, according to the poll. During her governorship, she has traveled the country to motivate conservative allies while railing against the mandates, regulations and tax increases coming from the nation's capital.

She talks about Washington a lot.

That's precisely where Sheheen plans to hit her hardest.

"She talks incessantly about national issues," Sheheen told Yahoo News. "She rarely talks about South Carolina issues. I'll talk about those policies, and I'll talk about those ideas. And while I do that, she'll be talking about Washington, D.C. She'll be talking about national political figures. Because that's what she's all about. She's made Columbia more like Washington, D.C., and my job is to make it less like Washington, D.C."

With about 19 months to go before the election, Sheheen is trying to define Haley early. In 2010, when she beat him by 4.4 percentage points, the cards were stacked against Democrats, as conservative candidates like Haley coasted into office on the national tea party wave.

Looking back, Sheheen saw himself within striking distance, and this time, he thinks he can use Haley's record against her while benefiting from an election year that will likely be more friendly to his party than 2010.

This time, Haley is an incumbent with a record that opponents can use against her. Sheheen says he can capitalize on her shortcomings to make up the ground he'll need to bridge the gap from the last election.

"There's a much greater opportunity in this election to draw contrasts between a positive agenda to move forward and the same old, same old," he told Yahoo News.

As a Democrat in a red state, Sheheen faces obvious statistical hurdles. An attorney first elected in 2004, he has been in the minority his entire political career.

On Election Day, it will have been 11 years since a Democrat held the governor's mansion. The state Senate and House haven't been majority blue since 1996 and 1994, respectively.

While he'll be required to show contrasts between himself and Haley, Sheheen refuses to call himself a liberal.

"I consider myself a pragmatist," Sheheen said.

That balance can be a tricky one.

While he doesn't like to dwell on national issues, as governor, Sheheen would be responsible for guiding the implementation of the federal health care law—a task Haley has refused. (At the state party convention in May, Haley told fellow Republicans that South Carolina will "never allow Obamacare to enter into this state.") Since the federal law passed three years ago, Haley has made every effort to push back against the state-based health insurance exchanges or expand Medicaid in the state.

"Haley has said no, and that's clearly stupid," Sheheen told Yahoo News. "It's stupid because it's our money, and she's going to send it to another state."

His willingness to adopt the state mandates in the law, he was careful to add, doesn't mean he approves of the law.

"I didn't support Obamacare, but we are where we are, and we have to work with what we have to work with," he told Yahoo News. "I opposed the mandates in 2010, and I still feel like that was the wrong approach. I think that there's been a lot of confusion, and I think you need a governor who finds ways to stop the bad things from happening and works to make the good things occur."

And of course, if he does defeat Haley next year, every Democratic presidential hopeful will be knocking down his door seeking an endorsement before the all-important South Carolina primary. Sheheen, who voted for then-Sen. Barack Obama in the 2008 South Carolina Democratic primary, won't say whom he likes in 2016.

But if those candidates come looking for support, he has a response waiting for them: "My question will be, What can you do for South Carolina?"