COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina elected its first woman governor Tuesday, opting for a tea party-backed Repubican lawmaker to succeed scandal-stained Gov. Mark Sanford.
Nikki Haley will become the nation's second Indian-American governor when she replaces Sanford, whose term-limited tenure ends in January. Louisiana's Bobby Jindal also is Indian-American.
She won with about 52 percent of the vote over state Sen. Vincent Sheheen's 46 percent with 85 percent of precincts reporting.
Haley, a 38-year-old married mother of two, earned the backing of Sarah Palin and campaigned stridently as a political outsider seeking to derail entrenched interests in her state's capitol. She also was able to shoulder unproven accusations of infidelity, questions about her finances and experience and the handwringing of business groups and fellow Republicans worried she will continue Sanford's acrimonious relationship with the state Legislature's GOP leaders.
Haley told a crowd of supporters that her win may be called historic, but that she hoped her work as governor would garner more attention.
"My goal was always to get you to care," Haley said. "If I could get the people to care, we could make history by changing the way government runs."
Sheheen, a 39-year-old Democrat from Camden, had won numerous newspaper endorsements and even grudging praise from Republican operatives impressed with a campaign that made the contest closer than anyone expected.
He gave a thumbs up as he thanked supporters who chanted "Vincent."
"I look out in this crowd and I know that just like me, you wish with all your might that we could take this state in a new direction, and it was close, oh, oh, so close, and we saw that glimmer. One day that glimmer will grow and burn brightly," he said.
Haley, whose national profile rose quickly after her four-way primary victory, becomes a significant figure on the national political scene. South Carolina is the first southern state in the presidential primary circuit and potential Republican candidates for the 2012 White House already are beating paths across the landscape as they donated to her campaign.
However, she inherits an elbows-out Legislature bristling after eight years of Sanford's vetoes and public castigations, much over spending. Most notably, the two factions fought after Sanford admitted an affair with an Argentine woman he called his soul mate. Sanford, who has since divorced, was formally reprimanded by lawmakers but resisted pressure to resign.
The child of Sikh immigrants — now a Methodist — Haley grew up in rural Bamberg County and helped run her parents' clothing business, working as a bookkeeper starting in her teens. Haley's father, who wears the traditional Sikh turban, was a biology professor at a historically black college and her mother taught middle school social studies.
Sheheen kept the race close. Haley raised $3.9 million for the campaign and spent $3.7 million; Sheheen raised $3.9 million and spent $3.8 million.