October 1 – December 31, 2016
Langford North Carolina Collection
3rd floor, J.Y. Joyner Library
In this fall’s elections, North Carolina is being billed as a “battleground state,” with the votes in presidential, gubernatorial and senatorial races being too close to call. For the past fifty years, this has not been an unusual situation. For much of the twentieth century, Jim Crow politics and a single-party system prevailed in North Carolina, with the Democratic Party dominating most statewide election. The turning point came with the 1968 presidential election. That year, the issues of civil rights, desegregation and the “liberalism” of party nominee Hubert Humphrey split the Democratic Party in North Carolina. The historic coalition of liberal and conservative elements in the party was broken as Southern conservatives abandoned lifelong traditions of straight-ticket voting. Some embraced the segregationist message of Governor George Wallace of Alabama. Others voted for the Republican nominee former Vice-President Richard Nixon, who represented himself as the moderate choice in an election of extremes.
Four years later Republicans were better positioned to expand their position in the South. Taking advantage of continuing divisions in the Democratic Party and Nixon’s dominance at the polls, they elected Jesse Helms as the first Republican senator from North Carolina since Reconstruction, and Jim Holshouser as the first Republican governor in 76 years. From 1972 the Republican Party has had a firm power base in North Carolina. While the party has won only four governorships in the period from 1972 through 2014, its nominees have won 11 of 15 senatorial races.
The Republicans owe no small part of this dominance in senate elections to five term senator Jesse Helms. Running as a political unknown in 1972 against Congressman Nick Galifianakis, Helms needed “Nixon’s coattails” to win his first election. However, he proved to be a powerhouse at campaigning. While he coasted to an easy win against John Ingram in 1978, he had to pull out all the stops to defeat Governor Jim Hunt in 1984. Their highly ideological campaign attracted national attention and set unprecedented records for spending on a senatorial campaign. So too did hard fought campaigns against Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gant in 1990 and 1996. These campaigns with huge sums raised on both sides with nationwide help became the models of current campaigns where each side routinely raises and spends millions of dollars for a single seat in Congress. Helms retired from Congress in 2005, and Republican Elizabeth Dole earned the privilege of replacing him.
The 1980 campaign for North Carolina’s junior senatorial seat pitted two opponents with strong connections to East Carolina University. The incumbent was Senator Robert Morgan, who had gotten his start in politics while serving as president of the Student Government Association while a student at East Carolina College. As an alumnus and future trustee, Morgan worked strenuously on the part of his alma mater. His opponent John East was long a professor of political science at East Carolina. Capitalizing on Ronald Reagan’s popularity as well as Morgan’s support of the Panama Canal Treaty, East successfully cast Morgan as “too liberal” for North Carolina. Paralyzed with polio since 1955, East served in the Senate until his death in June 1986.
An exhibition of materials both loaned and donated to NCC by John R.M. Lawrence, NC Librarian and Dr. Donald E. Collins, Associate Professor Emeritus, ECU Dept. of History.