The Republican John Edwards

Published February 14, 2024

By Gary Pearce

Bill Graham, a Republican candidate for governor, is trying to become the second trial lawyer to win high office in North Carolina.

The first was John Edwards, a Democrat who was elected U.S. Senator in 1998.

Like Edwards, Graham comes from humble roots and made millions of dollars as a plaintiffs’ lawyer representing little guys and gals who got hurt by big shots.

Like Edwards, Graham is spending some of his millions on TV ads starring himself, talking straight to camera.

Like Edwards, Graham is youthful-looking, with a toothy grin and full head of hair.

But unlike Edwards, Graham has to overcome his party’s traditional hostility to trial lawyers.

When Edwards ran, Republicans pilloried him as a greedy ambulance-chaser.

I was a consultant in that race. We learned in focus groups that voters liked that Edwards represented ordinary people who were hurt by careless doctors and corporations.

His ads said, “I’ve been a people’s lawyer, and I’ll be a people’s Senator.”

He won, unseating incumbent Republican Senator Lauch Faircloth.

Graham’s ads serve up the usual Republican red meat on “liberal” politicians, drugs and crime and the border “invasion.”

One ad says he “fought China.”

That refers to five jury awards – a whopping $550 million – that his law firm, Wallace and Graham of Salisbury, won against Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods Inc. over hog-farm odors.

That’s what you call inoculation. “Fought China” sounds better to Republicans than “sued farmers.”

If Graham overcomes the trial-lawyer obstacle, he then has to overcome Lt. Governor Mark Robinson’s big lead in Republican primary polls.

So, one Graham ad takes aim at Robinson’s antisemitism, quoting him saying in 2018 that the “foolishness about Hitler disarming millions of Jews and then marching them off to concentration camps is a bunch of hogwash.”

If Robinson is the nominee, Democrats will thank Graham for breaking that ground.

Graham’s campaign no doubt sees what Democrats’ focus groups found: The more voters learn about Robinson, the less they like him.

Conventional wisdom says Robinson is so strong with the Trump-MAGA crowd he can’t be beat.

But Graham has won big fights with formidable foes before.

As John Edwards showed, never underestimate a good trial lawyer’s ability to persuade a jury.

Or voters.