When Nikki Haley conceded her deflating third-place defeat in the Iowa caucuses this month, the first person she thanked was nearly 8,000 miles away.
“I want to say to my husband, who is deployed, who I know may or may not be watching this right now — Michael, I love you,” she said, standing in front of a row of American flags. “What keeps me going at night is that we sleep under the same stars.”
It was an unusually personal and almost saccharine note for a politician known for her tough exterior. But it was hardly out of place.
Even in his absence, Maj. Michael Haley, a National Guardsman serving a voluntary, yearlong deployment in Africa, has played an outsize role in his wife’s increasingly lonely attempt to snatch the Republican nomination from former President Donald J. Trump.
In nearly every stump speech, Ms. Haley describes her husband and his military career as one of her motives for running. She frequently refers to his struggles after returning from a war zone in her promises to improve health care for veterans. She suggests that his work has informed her foreign policy.
Yet, despite this prominence, Major Haley himself remains something of a blank slate. While other candidates’ spouses — with the notable exception of Melania Trump — logged miles across Iowa and New Hampshire last year trying to humanize their other halves, he has avoided the intense scrutiny, as well as the public speaking, photo ops and interviews, that comes with campaigning.
Those who know him say this is just as he likes it. A former foster child who met his wife when he was 19, Major Haley has largely orbited her ambitions since.
While her career marched upward, his meandered; he worked for her parents and ran a struggling bartering venture before he found the military. More recently, he was involved in a casino deal and currently has an ill-defined role with a small defense company.
Until this year, he has always campaigned at her side, though largely out of the spotlight.
“He’s perfectly content as a rock Nikki leans on in the background,” said Rob Godfrey, who worked as a spokesman for Ms. Haley during both of her campaigns for South Carolina governor as well as most of her time in that office.
Major Haley rarely speaks to the news media, and declined a request for an interview. When asked about his deployment in June, he told The Associated Press that he “can’t help but to think giving one year, along with my fellow soldiers, as many have done before me, to secure a life of freedom for my family, is well worth all that comes with it.”
Ms. Haley has turned to her husband as “a touchstone on important issues” at key moments in her career, Mr. Godfrey said.
In the days after a racist gunman killed nine people at a historically Black church in Charleston, S.C., Ms. Haley decided to push to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds after consulting with Major Haley, Mr. Godfrey said.
“There was no question: Nikki wanted to talk to the person she trusted the most about what to do,” Mr. Godfrey said.
Major Haley’s politics appear to mirror his wife’s; in the past, he has occasionally taken to social media to criticize her political opponents or Democratic officials.
Friends describe him as a golfer, a football fan and an avid hunter who relishes posting pictures of alligators he has bagged. The couple’s son, Nalin, a college senior, described his father in an interview with The New York Times as a prankster and a lover of “the typical dad jokes.”
His father watched every debate from Camp Lemonnier, the sprawling military base in Djibouti where he is deployed, Mr. Haley said, and he has a habit of turning photos of his family or his wife’s staff into memes that he shares online. “Sometimes they are really funny, or they are really bad,” he said. “There is no in-between.”
Major Haley, 53, did not have an easy start in life. His biological father was an alcoholic who had trouble with the law. He spent his earliest years in Ohio, living in a house that often had no electricity or running water, Ms. Haley wrote in her 2012 book, “Can’t Is Not An Option.”
His mother suffered a severe brain injury when he was 3, and Major Haley went to a foster home with two of his sisters, while the oldest two siblings were placed in another home.
The next year, he and his younger sister, Lee Anne, were adopted by Bill and Carole Haley. Bill was the manager of a steel mill, and Carole was a schoolteacher. It would be 15 years before Michael tracked down the rest of his brothers and sisters, Ms. Haley wrote.
Major Haley met his future wife in college, when she was a freshman studying accounting at Clemson University and he was enrolled at Anderson University, a small Christian school nearby.
At the time, Major Haley went by the same first name as his adoptive father, Bill. But Ms. Haley recounts in her memoir that soon after they started dating she told him, “You just don’t look like a Bill.” She instead chose to call him by his middle name, Michael, and it stuck, she wrote.
The couple encountered resistance from Ms. Haley’s parents, who are Sikh immigrants from India and wanted their daughter to marry someone with the same religion. But in 1996, two years after he proposed, they married in separate Sikh and Christian ceremonies and eventually settled in Lexington, S.C.
Both worked for her parents’ clothing business, Exotica International. Major Haley managed the men’s wear department, while Ms. Haley did the books. As she took to politics, he invested in the bartering franchise. As they raised their two children — Nalin has an older sister, Rena — the family business struggled and money was tight.
In 2006, when Ms. Haley was a first-term state representative, Major Haley finished his college degree and soon thereafter joined the South Carolina Army National Guard as a 36-year-old second lieutenant, older than most new officers.
The military gave him a steady purpose and a modest income. In 2007, he took a full-time job as a federal military technician, working in human resources on policies to promote diversity in the Guard and protect against discrimination based on race, gender or disability.
Major Haley stayed in the job when he became the first gentleman of South Carolina — the state’s first — in 2010, after an ugly campaign in which Ms. Haley was forced to deny accusations of marital infidelity. He used the role to advocate issues close to home — changes to adoption laws and veteran services — but kept his focus largely on his family.
“He is not a retail politician,” said Ted Pitts, a friend and fellow Guardsman, who is also a former state representative. “He’s devoted to the family and puts out a lot of time and effort to make sure the family is taken care of.”
In 2012, the third deadliest year for U.S. troops during the war in Afghanistan, Major Haley raised his hand for a mission focused on teaching farmers in the country to grow and sell crops other than opium. While many National Guard deployments are mandatory, this one was strictly voluntary, said Dwight Bradham, a retired major who helped oversee the agribusiness team’s work.
(When the news of his deployment broke, Ms. Haley took to Facebook, posting lyrics to the 1988 ballad by the hair-metal band Poison, “Every Rose Has a Thorn.”)
Major Haley, then a captain, deployed in January 2013 to Helmand Province. While he was not in a combat unit, he did have a few brushes with roadside bombs. “People had some brain rattle there from the explosions,” said Lt. Col. Scott Ward, who is now retired but served as the commanding officer of the agricultural mission.
Everyone knew who he was, but he “didn’t sit back and try to get special treatment because of who his wife is,” Major Bradham said. “He’s a soldier.”
Ms. Haley frequently describes her husband’s re-entry as difficult. “When Michael returned from Afghanistan, loud noises startled him,” Ms. Haley said in an ad released in December. “He couldn’t be in crowds. The transition was hard.”
Friends describe Major Haley, who earned a bronze star in Afghanistan, as slipping into his next role without obvious signs of stress. When Ms. Haley became the ambassador to the United Nations in 2017, he joined his wife at diplomatic events and dinners, as well as on official trips overseas.
Since the couple’s return to South Carolina in late 2018, Major Haley has kept a lower profile. Friends say he is closely involved in taking care of Ms. Haley’s parents. Financial disclosures show that he runs a company that manages income from his wife’s speeches and book sales, as well as a family investment portfolio.
In 2022, The Wall Street Journal reported that he was among several politically connected figures with stakes in a company that received a share of slot machine profits from a tribal casino in North Carolina. Others with stakes included John B. Clyburn, a brother of Representative James Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina, and Patti Solis Doyle, a Democratic political operative, the newspaper reported.
Wallace Cheves, a developer who spearheaded the project, said that Major Haley was given his stake in exchange for cybersecurity services.
“He was a consultant of a consultant that worked with the tribe,” Mr. Cheves said in response to questions.
Financial disclosures show that he also has a stake worth as much as $500,000 in Allied Defense, a company registered with the federal government as a veteran-owned “military armored vehicle, tank and tank component manufacturing concern.” But it does not appear to have any federal contracts.
The Haley campaign declined to comment on Major Haley’s cybersecurity background or to disclose information about his involvement with the defense firm.
Major Haley was deployed again last June, this time to Djibouti, a base for counterterrorism operations in Africa. He joined the 218th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade as a planning officer for the mission. Because he did not belong to the unit, it was an assignment that he would have had to request, according to multiple former Guardsmen.
The deployment has meant that he has missed much of his wife’s campaign — her weeks of glad-handing, her standout debate performances, her poor showing in Iowa, her New Hampshire loss and now the intense pressure from fellow Republicans to quit.
“There is never a good time for a deployment,” Ms. Haley posted on social media after seeing off her husband, along with several hundred other soldiers, in a ceremony at the Citadel, a military college in Charleston, in June.
“How blessed are we to live in a country where men and women are willing to sacrifice and serve to defend our freedoms?” she wrote.
Jazmine Ulloa and Sharon LaFraniere contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.