© 2024 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

They say you can't go home again. Nikki Haley can but it doesn't guarantee votes

"It's a great day in South Carolina when I can come home," Nikki Haley delivered her signature line with a hometown twist to supporters. Republican presidential candidate and former UN Ambassador Haley steps off of her campaign bus ahead of an event on Feb. 13 in her hometown of Bamberg, S.C.
Meg Kinnard
/
AP
"It's a great day in South Carolina when I can come home," Nikki Haley delivered her signature line with a hometown twist to supporters. Republican presidential candidate and former UN Ambassador Haley steps off of her campaign bus ahead of an event on Feb. 13 in her hometown of Bamberg, S.C.

Updated February 24, 2024 at 8:29 PM ET

Nikki Haley is struggling to find widespread support in her home state ahead of the Republican primary on Feb. 24.

But in her hometown of Bamberg, South Carolina, they're a little more enthusiastic.

"She always found this was her home," said Paula Dyches, owner of Rusty & Paula's Restaurant, on the main drag through Bamberg.

Paula Dyches stands in the construction site that her diner, Rusty & Paula's Restaurant, has become after a tornado tore through the small town of Bamberg, S.C., which is also Nikki Haley's hometown.
Jeongyoon Han / NPR
/
NPR
Paula Dyches stands in the construction site that her diner, Rusty & Paula's Restaurant, has become after a tornado tore through the small town of Bamberg, S.C., which is also Nikki Haley's hometown.

The diner is often a hub for local activity, hosting events for politicians including Haley in the past. Today though, it's a construction zone, as the town recovers from a major tornado that tore through in January.

Dyches says the restaurant flooded and the roof blew off. But she was happy to host a few residents from the area, who gathered around a table to talk about Haley's last push before the primary.

Bamberg County Republican Party Chair Sharon Carter gathered local Republicans together at Rusty & Paula's Restaurant in Bamberg, S.C., to talk about Nikki Haley's candidacy for president.
Jeongyoon Han / NPR
/
NPR
Bamberg County Republican Party Chair Sharon Carter gathered local Republicans together at Rusty & Paula's Restaurant in Bamberg, S.C., to talk about Nikki Haley's candidacy for president.
It is astonishing to me that people are choosing Trump in her hometown. Because people who do know her know that she's an authentically real person.

Sharon Carter, who invited the group, is chairwoman of the Bamberg County Republican Party. As such, she can't officially endorse any candidate in the state's primary on Saturday.

But she has some thoughts about this weekend's matchup between the former President and South Carolina's former governor:

"It is astonishing to me that people are choosing Trump in her hometown," Carter said. "Because people who do know her know that she's an authentically real person."

Jerome Boyce, who lives in the nearby town of Denmark, is among those local residents backing Trump.

"Trump has got it. Trump has a track record. Nikki Haley does not," Boyce said, sitting across the table from Carter.

Boyce says Haley - who's also a former ambassador to the United Nations - was a good governor for South Carolina during the six years she led the state.

But Boyce opposed her work to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse in 2015, in the aftermath of the racist shooting that left nine people dead at a historically Black church in Charleston.

"It's my heritage," Boyce explained. "It's Southern."

Across town, Randy Maxwell saw that moment as an example of Haley's strength in leadership.

"I'm as Southern as you get," he said. "But that's a thing of the past. And it stood for, whether you like to hear it or not, it stood for slavery. It stood for racism. It stood for division in our country."

Of Haley, he said, "she did the right thing. She didn't hesitate."

Just a small town girl

Randy (left) and Mary Jane Maxwell stand outside their home in Bamberg, S.C. The Maxwells support Nikki Haley in her run for president and plan to write her in even if she doesn't make it to the general election.
Jeongyoon Han / NPR
/
NPR
Randy (left) and Mary Jane Maxwell stand outside their home in Bamberg, S.C. The Maxwells support Nikki Haley in her run for president and plan to write her in even if she doesn't make it to the general election.
It puts Bamberg on the map, so we're excited for her and we hope she makes it.

He and his wife, Mary Jane Maxwell, live just a few blocks from Haley's childhood home. They're enthusiastically supporting her in the primary.

Mary Jane remembers Haley as a "well-mannered" child who became an "amazing young lady" who's made her home state proud. She contrasts Haley's temperament with Trump's.

"He did some good things for America, but he is just such a bully," she says. "And well, he does not have any characteristics that we want any of our grandchildren to have."

Mary Jane Maxwell says she has supported Trump in the past, but she doesn't think she could vote for him again. Randy Maxwell says he's never voted for Trump and never will.

But he admits that Haley is staring down a likely defeat here at home in South Carolina.

"It will not look good for her," he says. "It will not look good for any candidate if you don't win your home state. Trump just has so much base that they're not going to change."

Facing another Trump-Biden matchup, the Maxwells say they'd probably write Haley in.

The main street in Bamberg, S.C., where tornado damage from a storm in January is still evident. Nikki Haley, who was born and raised in Bamberg, visited the town just days before the S.C. primary election.
Jeongyoon Han / NPR
/
NPR
The main street in Bamberg, S.C., where tornado damage from a storm in January is still evident. Nikki Haley, who was born and raised in Bamberg, visited the town just days before the S.C. primary election.

Bamberg's mayor, Nancy Foster, says there's excitement about Haley's campaign here, even though the town leans Democratic.

"It puts Bamberg on the map, so we're excited for her and we hope she makes it," Foster said

Stephanie Crosby-Lee grew up in Bamberg. She's glad to see a woman in the race - even though she is a Democrat and supports President Biden.

Crosby-Lee was stopping by a local lunch spot on Thursday with her mother, who still lives nearby. She wishes Haley, with her high profile, would do more for the town's struggling economy. But she sees value in Haley continuing her campaign, even if she can't ultimately beat Trump.

"One thing I do know, she gave him a run for his money," she said.

Haley is poised to keep raising - and spending - money of her own. Her campaign has announced a seven-figure ad buy ahead of Super Tuesday next month, and she's vowed to continue campaigning regardless of what happens in her home state on Saturday.

NPR's Jeongyoon Han contributed reporting to this article.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.