How We Got Where We Are At in North Carolina Politics

Published December 24, 2013

By D. G. Martin

by D. G. Martin, One on One, December 23, 2013.

Just in time for the new year, a new book puts modern North Carolina politics in perspective.

“The Making of a Southern Democracy: North Carolina Politics from Kerr Scott to Pat McCrory,” by East Carolina University Professor Tom Eamon covers North Carolina and its politics from 1948 through last year’s election.

These 65-plus years have been transformative for our state in many ways: social, economic, educationally, and politically. It is the politics that Eamon seeks to explain. But the social and economic changes drove many of the political changes. So did national political changes.

By bringing all these factors together while covering every major North Carolina election contest, Eamon makes a good start in explaining how and why North Carolina politics has changed so dramatically.

The book's underlying theme is that elections matter. For instance, the 1948 victory of Kerr Scott in the Democratic gubernatorial primary gave progressive forces in North Carolina a dramatic boost. It led to the appointment of Frank Porter Graham to the United States Senate, which itself led to another election that mattered: the 1950 defeat of Graham by the more conservative Willis Smith. These two elections drew battle lines and traditions that still influence the state.

The 1960 victory of Terry Sanford over the segregationist I. Beverly Lake in the Democratic gubernatorial primary assured the state’s measured response to the ongoing civil rights revolution.

The multifaceted election results in 1972 brought about real change. In the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate seat, Nick Galifianakis defeated the more conservative incumbent B. Everett Jordan. Then Galifianakis lost the general election to an even more conservative and new Republican, Jesse Helms. Many disappointed conservative Democrats followed Helms’s lead and joined the Republicans.

That year also featured the new sophisticated election tactics used by Hargrove “Skipper” Bowles to defeat Pat Taylor in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Eamon writes, “The Bowles campaign proved to be a watershed for North Carolina politics. In the spring of 1972, old-style campaigns were still the rule…. From that time forth, North Carolina’s campaigns blended survey research with emerging technology. The Bowles operatives used focus groups, opinion polls homing in on the cutting-edge issues, and slick television commercials.”

Even these new tactics could not keep Bowles from losing to Republican Jim Holshouser in the Nixon landslide that also sent Jesse Helms to the Senate.

The 1984 Helms-Hunt U.S. Senate campaign, according to Eamon, “marked the beginning of a new era in American politics.”

He writes, “The Helms ads proved to be among the most effective in American campaign history. Before the campaign was over, Hunt had faced more negative radio and television ads than any other North Carolina candidate to date.”

That same year in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, which Eamon labels as “fratricide,” six serious candidates, including three who were very close to Hunt, battled for the nomination. The runoff between Rufus Edmisten and Eddie Knox was bitter and led to Knox's support for Helms in the U.S. Senate race and contributed to Helms’ victory over Jim Hunt.

Eamon explains the important gains North Carolina Republicans made in legislative races in 1994 and 2010. In each case, the Democrats paid high prices for their party’s victory in presidential elections two years earlier, Clinton in 1992 and Obama in 2008. In both cases negative reaction to the new presidents drove North Carolina voters to express their displeasure by voting Republican in the legislative races. In 2010 the results gave Republicans complete control of the legislature and the redistricting process.

If you care about North Carolina politics, put reading this book at the top of your list of New Year’s resolutions.