The Tar Heel Top 5: North Carolina's Most Notable Campaigns

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A look at some races that influenced the nation in the state where Democrats are holding their national convention.

jesse helmsThe late U.S. Senator from North Carolina, Jesse Helms. (Mike Benson)

America saw a Hollywood version of North Carolina politics with the release this summer of The Campaign. I've watched real Tar Heel elections first hand for 25 years, and heard the details of Carolina campaigns going back to the 1950 U.S. Senate race that marks the beginning of modern politics in the state. Although there's never been a race here as farcical as the Will Ferrell-Zach Galifianakis celluloid contest, the Old North State certainly has had its share of campaign drama and state election outcomes that made a national impact.

Since everyone interested enough in politics to attend (or even watch) the Democratic National Convention ought to know something about the campaign history of the host state, I offer to delegates and viewers alike a list of the top five North Carolina political races since 1950, followed by a (short) list of caveats about them:

(5) Elizabeth Dole v. Kay Hagan, U.S. Senate. In 2008, incumbent Senator Elizabeth "Liddy" Dole was presumed to be on a general election glide path thanks to positive name recognition and a flush campaign war chest. Instead, Dole dropped Icarus-like as Election Day neared and Hagan won going away (53 percent to 44 percent) in November. What happened? Hagan proved to be a talented, tenacious candidate who expertly leveraged her ties to the donation and vote-rich Triad area she represented in the state legislature. She was also aided by a humor-laced but lacerating anti-Dole TV ad paid for by the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, plus a surge of Obama-driven voters that lifted North Carolina Democrats up and down the '08 ticket. Hagan's poised response to Dole's desperate attempts to tie her to atheism sealed the win and secured Democrats a seat held by Republicans since 1972. The national implications are still being felt: Dole's 2008 loss deprived the GOP of one more polished, nationally recognized female voice in the Senate.

(4) James Holshouser v. Hargrove "Skipper" Bowles, Governor. Holshouser's gubernatorial win in 1972 gave Republicans the governor's mansion for the first time since 1896 and has proved a model for moderate Republican gubernatorial candidates (from Jim Martin to Richard Vinroot to Pat McCrory) ever since. For North Carolina Democrats, the loss (coupled with the defeat of the party's U.S. Senate candidate, left the newly elected Lieutenant Governor -- 35 year-old Jim Hunt -- as the party's de facto head, a position he arguably still holds 40 years later. The campaign also introduced Bowles' son Erskine to public life, a place from which he has rarely retreated over the past four decades.

(3) Jesse Helms v. Jim Hunt, U.S. Senate (1984); Jesse Helms v. Harvey Gantt, U.S. Senate (1990); Jesse Helms v. Harvey Gantt, U.S. Senate (1996) Every Helms race is famous (and, to many Democrats, infamous) but these three had an outsized influence on national politics and policy. Helms' first U.S. Senate win came in 1972, when he defeated actor Zach's uncle, Nick Galifianakis, after deploying the campaign slogan "Jesse Helms: He's One of Us."

Jesse Helms' first U.S. Senate win came in 1972, when he defeated actor Zach Galifianakis' uncle, Nick Galifianakis, after deploying the campaign slogan "Jesse Helms: He's One of Us."

By 1984, Helms was on the verge of being the most influential Republican senator since Barry Goldwater and, apart from then-President Reagan, was arguably the national GOP's leading (and most conservative) voice on foreign affairs. Hunt was ending a second successful term as governor and, had he vanquished Helms, would have been a leading contender for the Democratic nomination for president in 1988 or 1992. Thousands of pages have been written about the campaign but the bottom line is this: Hunt ran 10 points ahead of the Democratic presidential nominee, Walter Mondale, but he need to run 12. Helms won 52 percent to 48 percent.

Six (and then again 12) years later, Helms faced Harvey Gantt, the African-American architect who, as a college student, desegregated Clemson University and became Charlotte's first black mayor. Helms -- a beneficiary of the notorious "white hands" ad and a postcard campaign to suppress black turnout -- beat Gantt by the same margin in both elections, winning 53 percent to 47 percent. The Helms-Hunt and Helms-Gantt campaigns captured the nation's attention as few state races anywhere have before or since. The wins allowed Helms' clout, already considerable, to grow over 18 more years.

(2) Frank Porter Graham v. Willis Smith, U.S. Senate. While Helms's campaigns may be North Carolina's most famous, the race that ushered in an era of politics comparable to our own took place at the mid-point of the last century. In 1950, North Carolina was still very much a one party state (and Democratic one) so what mattered in the race for U.S. Senate that year was who would emerge from the Democratic primary as the party's nominee. "Dr. Frank", the progressive head of the University of North Carolina college system based in Chapel Hill, was the nominal incumbent, having been tapped in 1949 to fill a vacancy-by-death. In his race to keep the seat, Graham's principal opponent was segregationist Smith. Particularly in the second run-off primary, Smith painted Graham as the puppet of Communist sympathizers, the NAACP, and labor organizers. The red-baiting, race-baiting, and union-bashing paid off as Smith won 52 percent to 48 percent. The race was important in and of itself but even more so for its searing impact on several future generations of Tar Heel politicians. Many Smith operatives, such as Helms and Tom Ellis, would switch parties and become leading Republicans in the years to come. Grahamites such as Terry Sanford and Dickson Phillips would redouble their efforts to forge winning progressive coalitions in future elections. For anyone involved in state campaigns in the 1980s and '90s, it was amazing to hear older North Carolina pols re-live the Graham-Smith race as if it had happened just a year or two before rather than two score.

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Hampton Dellinger is a former state deputy attorney general for North Carolina, now in private practice. In 2008 he sought the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor. He recently served as NBC's legal analyst for the John Edwards trial.

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