How Nikki Haley Survived Political Scandal

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Nikki Haley (center) celebrated her runoff victory in Columbia on Tuesday night with husband Michael Haley (left), daughter Rena (second from left), and former opponent Henry McMaster (right). Brett Flashnick / AP

In the old days—and I’m talking only a few years ago—Nikki Haley wouldn’t have had a chance. Here she was, an attractive, 38-year-old married woman running for the Republican nomination for governor in solidly conservative, highly religious South Carolina, and two men come forward to allege publicly that she’d committed adultery with them.

In the old Bible Belt, that would have derailed Haley’s campaign—even if, as in her case, there were no videos or hotel receipts or anything other than on-the-record accusations.

But on Tuesday night, she won the GOP nomination for governor, and is well on her way to becoming the state’s next chief executive. (She leads Democrat Vincent Sheheen by 21 points in recent polls.)

By “overcoming a sex scandal,” as one TV network reporter put it, Haley becomes a contrasting data point on the ever-more-complex grid of personal politics. An allegation of infidelity, or even an admittance of sexual misconduct, no longer automatically spells death at the ballot box.

Haley’s survival was partly due to her gender (women rallied around her), and the fact that she is a conservative Republican (Sarah Palin was for her). Haley was also helped by the backing of the estranged wife of former governor Mark Sanford—the irony was potent—who was made a laughingstock by his own sex scandal.

Haley survived because she found a safe spot amid the danger/safety variables on the new personal-scandal grid. Here are some:

SITTING GOVERNOR. You don’t want to be one of these when you get hit with a sex scandal. The survival rate is awful: New York’s Eliot Spitzer (hookers), New Jersey’s Jim McGreevey (male “national security” aide), Sanford (mistress in Buenos Aires). Voters don’t seem to care as much about members of Congress. But they do care about chief executives, including, sometimes, mayors (Kwame Kilpatrick of Detroit). And governors tend to make local enemies—powerful ones.

CONFESS QUICKLY AND USE THE WORD 'SIN.' This seems to have helped senators David Vitter of Louisiana (hookers) and John Ensign of Nevada (female former campaign aide). They proclaimed their own sin and used the very word—often. Had he tried the confessional route, President Bill Clinton might have lost a wife in 1998, but not been impeached and almost convicted.

COME OUT. Even back in 1990, the Prohibition Era of sex-scandal history, Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts was able to weather a scandal involving a gay prostitute who conducted his business out of Frank’s apartment. There was no evidence that the congressman knew about the extent of the business, but what really saved Frank was that he had been honest about his sexuality: he had bravely come out of the closet three years earlier. Former senator Larry Craig of Idaho (men’s room “wide stance”) and former representative Eric Massa of New York (male birthday “tickle pile”) never said they were gay. Maybe they aren’t. But if they were, they would have been better off saying so. Former representative Mark Foley (male Congressional pages) did, but only after he lost his bid for reelection in Florida. One exception to the coming-out rule: New Jersey (See: McGreevey and episodes of The Sopranos).

SOME STATES ARE EASIER THAN OTHERS. If you’re going to be accused of engaging in an “extramarital affair”—the phrase has an almost antique ring to it these days—it’s best to be an elected official in California. The mayors of Los Angeles and San Francisco admitted to affairs in recent years, and they are both still in office. And if you are going to admit to patronizing prostitutes, it’s a good idea to be from New Orleans (Vitter).

AVOID E-MAILS AND TEXT MESSAGES. Foley was done in, in part, by his sick e-mails to congressional pages, Kilpatrick by his steamy texts. Tweets surely are next. Nothing ever truly vanishes on the Internet, and nothing goes viral faster than content that was digital to begin with.

TELL THE TRUTH. Former senator John Edwards of North Carolina destroyed himself not only with infidelity but with outrageous denials and coldly cynical lies about his affair with Rielle Hunter. He went up in flames the moment he was cornered in an L.A. hotel room. The bigger the lie, the bigger the eventual fall.

Which brings us back to Nikki Haley. She quickly and flatly denied that she had had any sexual involvement with either man, and despite inconclusive phone logs and speculative, hearsay e-mails, no evidence has surfaced to contradict her. She has vowed to resign from the governor’s office if anyone can prove that she is lying. So far, her denials and counterattacks have not only protected her, they actually allowed her to benefit from a backlash.

And that will continue. As long as she is telling the truth. Never forget John Edwards, the politician from the other Carolina.

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