Will Nikki Haley & Jenny Sanford Launch the GOP “New Girls” Network?

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Jenny Sanford could become the next female member of the U.S. Senate.  Jenny who?

Remember Jenny Sanford? The wronged former first lady of  South Carolina? The one whose husband coined the euphemism “hiking the old Appalachian Trail?”

She’s never held political office herself, but it turns out that Sanford is on the short list of potential replacements for Jim DeMint, the current junior Senator from the Palmetto State, and a founding member of the Tea Party Caucus in the Senate, who recently announced he’s resigning before his term ends to take a job as the president of The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

And the person thinking about making Sanford female Senator number 21 is the governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley.

There are plenty of skeptics about whether Sanford is qualified to be appointed to one of 100 seats in the U.S. Senate. Some people have questioned whether her notoriety from her husband’s escapades is enough to put her in contention to be one of the most politically powerful women in the country.

There’s no doubt she’s smart — she was a Wall Street banker before she stepped off her career path to be a political spouse. And it’s true she has no elected political experience of her own. But there is a huge reason South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley could appoint Sanford (and not Stephen Colbert!) to the seat that current Senator Jim DeMint has announced he’s leaving.

I’m calling it the rise of the “New Girls Network.”

There’s a back-story to why Haley may decide that Jenny Sanford is the right person to send to Washington, D.C. Nikki Haley wasn’t supposed to become governor of South Carolina. When she launched her bid in 2010, she was behind in a pack of five candidates in a primary fight.  Then super-endorser Sarah Palin swooped in to bestow her political blessing and suddenly Haley was a semi-celebrity. But even more importantly for South Carolina voters, Haley — a political unknown at the time — won the support of then-First Lady Sanford, who was quite open about the fact that she was tired with the state’s politics as usual theme:

“Our state’s future is too important to leave to just another go-along-get-along career politician. Nikki Haley is the best person to be South Carolina’s next Governor.”

It’s probably safe to say that without Jenny Sanford’s support, Haley would have had a much harder time winning the governor’s race and, perhaps, she even owes her win to Sanford. So how do you thank someone for such a huge favor?

Can you say “patronage?”

Patronage appointments are nothing new in the world of politics.  But there have been so few women governors who have been in a position to fill unfinished congressional terms, this moment in Haley’s tenure is one everyone is watching. But this is also a particularly important opportunity for Republican women.

In a U.S. Senate where 16 of the soon-to-be 20 women are Democrats, and in a time when Republicans are finally figuring out they cannot win national races without the support of women, it makes complete sense for Haley to appoint Sanford. Whether Haley has the intestinal fortitude to push back against the political establishment that’s calling on her to choose another name from that short list, is another matter. While I personally favor fewer Republicans and more Democrats in office, if Haley really wants to help promote the agenda of Republican women, the time to strike is now.

It’s also been reported that Catherine Templeton, a conservative attorney selected by Haley to head her state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control, is on the Senate short list.  Both women are reported to have “warm personal relationships” with Governor Haley.

If Republican women really want to have a bigger voice in their party politics, this could be a good time to move the GOP girl power agenda forward. Republicans in general may not have a binder full of women from which to choose appointees for the national stage, but I’m sure GOP women do. And I have a sense that they’re increasingly going to be turning to those “binders” to grow their conservative ranks.

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