Who is Nikki Haley? Everything to know about the former governor running for president in 2024

Haley was elected as the first female governor of South Carolina in 2010 and stepped down in 2017 to serve as a Trump ambassador.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2023
Who is Nikki Haley?
Haley was elected to two terms as South Carolina governor before Donald Trump tapped her to serve in his Cabinet.

WASHINGTON -- Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley announced her run for president in February, becoming the first Republican to challenge former President Donald Trump.

Haley, 51, was elected as the first female governor of South Carolina in 2010, stepping down in 2017, during her second term, to serve as a Trump ambassador until 2018.

If successful in the primary, Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, would be the first woman and the first Asian American nominated by the Republican Party for president.

Here's everything you need to know about the GOP candidate:

'Daughter of immigrants'

In her announcement video, Haley, the daughter of immigrants, highlighted her heritage as a South Asian woman and touted her hopeful view of what America can offer.

"I was the proud daughter of Indian immigrants -- not Black, not white. I was different," she says as the video she tweeted, titled "Strong & Proud," opens featuring photos of her family.

Haley was born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa on Jan. 20, 1972, in the small town of Bamberg, South Carolina, to father Aji and mother Raj. Her parents owned Exotica International Inc., a small foreign goods store that evolved into a multimillion-dollar clothing and gift venture.

In this screenshot from Nikki Haley's campaign ad, a family photo is shown in Bamberg, South Carolina.
Nikki Haley campaign ad

She grew up enduring racist taunts and has long referenced that impact on her personal and political arc. Despite that, Haley insisted that America is not a racist country: "Nothing could be further from the truth." Playing in the background of her video were images of media reports related to The New York Times Magazine's Pulitzer Prize-winning "1619 Project" -- which centered the country's history around slavery.

Haley graduated from Clemson University in 1994 and married her husband Michael Haley in 1996. The couple has two children, Rena and Nalin.

Though raised in the religion of Sikh, Haley converted to Christianity in her 20s. In an interview with the New York Times, Haley said she and her husband "chose Christianity because of the way we wanted to live our life and raise our children."

Ascent to politics

Before entering politics, Haley was an accountant and served as president of the National Association of Women Business Owners.

In her first political campaign in 2004, Haley defeated the longest-serving member of South Carolina's House to serve the state's 87th District. After six years in the Legislature, she was considered a longshot when she mounted her 2010 gubernatorial campaign.

Nikki Haley speaks to supporters as she during an election party at the State Museum on June 22, 2010, in Columbia, South Carolina.
Chris Keane/Getty Images

The GOP field was filled with more experienced politicians, and at times, she faced blatant racism. Then-state Sen. Jake Knotts appeared on a talk show and used a racial slur in reference to Haley. He apologized, saying it was meant as a joke.

Still, Haley became the first woman and person of color elected South Carolina's governor -- and the nation's youngest state executive. After winning reelection in 2014, her second term was marred by crisis.

She spent weeks attending funerals of Black parishioners gunned down by a self-avowed white supremacist at a Charleston church in 2015. Later that year, she pushed for and signed legislation to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds, where it had flown for more than 50 years.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley attends a memorial service at Morris Brown AME Church for the people killed inside the historic Black church in Charleston, S.C., June 18, 2015.
AP Photo/David Goldman

Ambassador Haley

Haley's political skills were tested in a different way in 2016, as Trump went from late-night television punchline to serious Republican presidential contender.

She endorsed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio ahead of South Carolina's high-stakes Republican primary, then backed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz once Rubio was knocked out.

Then, Haley described Trump as "everything a governor doesn't want in a president." She also said she was "embarrassed" by his attacks against former President George W. Bush and condemned Trump's reluctance to disavow the KKK.

President Donald Trump meets with outgoing U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, Oc. 9, 2018, in Washington.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci

But shortly after Trump won the presidency, she agreed to serve as the new administration's ambassador to the United Nations, a Cabinet-level position.

"I proudly serve in this administration, and I enthusiastically support most of its decisions and the direction it is taking the country," Haley said in a 2018 op-ed.

Later that year, Haley abruptly announced her departure from the U.N. in the wake of an ethics probe, fueling speculation that she might challenge Trump in 2020 or replace Pence on the ticket. Neither happened.

Instead, Haley returned to South Carolina, joined the board of aircraft manufacturer Boeing Co. and hit the lucrative speaking circuit, reportedly commanding fees as high as $200,000. She also penned two books.

Her public support for Trump continued even after the attack on the Capitol.

"I'm really proud of the successes of the Trump administration. Whether it was foreign policy or domestic policy, we should embrace those," she tweeted three weeks after the insurrection.

What's next?

It's unclear whether such platitudes will give Haley much cushion in a party that, for now, remains dominated by Trump and his supporters. Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, the No. 3 House Republican, has already endorsed Trump's 2024 bid. While she declined to comment directly on Haley's candidacy, she insisted that Trump would defeat any Republican challenger "by massive margins."

"It is time for Republicans to unite around the most popular Republican in America," she said of Trump.

Nikki Haley, former ambassador to the United Nations, during an event in Charleston, South Carolina, on Feb. 15, 2023.
Sam Wolfe/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Strategists say Haley is likely to continue highlighting the age gap between her and President Joe Biden, 80, and Trump, 76, particularly as many Democrats privately worry whether Biden is too old to run for reelection. Haley frequently posts on social media about her long-distance runs. Headphones in and slightly out of breath, Haley talks on Instagram about what songs she listened to on the eight- or nine-mile run she just completed. (The former governor is a big fan of legendary rocker Joan Jett.)

"I would think a critical part of her message would be that she's a daughter of immigrants, a woman, young -- all those attributes that compare positively to the old White male concept of the Republican Party," said Chip Felkel, a Republican strategist in South Carolina. Haley opened her announcement video talking about how she felt "different" growing up in South Carolina.

"The railroad tracks divided the town by race. I was the proud daughter of Indian immigrants. Not Black, not White. I was different. But my mom would always say your job is not to focus on the differences but the similarities. And my parents reminded me and my siblings every day how blessed we were to live in America," Haley said.

But others close to Haley say that while she is unmistakably proud of her heritage, she has been reluctant throughout her political career to lean into her identity and background to make political points and wants to focus her presidential message on her record as governor of South Carolina and UN ambassador.

"I think you would see less of the governor leaning on identity politics and more on her record of results," said Rob Godfrey, a top aide to Haley when she was governor.

The Associated Press and the CNN Wire contributed to this report.

This article was originally published in February 2023.