How Jesse Helms Ruled North Carolina

Jesse Helms' death comes as no surprise, since his health had rapidly declined after he retired from the U.S. Senate in 2002. Yet it's fitting that he died on the Fourth of July. Helms was a disgrace to North Carolina and the nation, and what better time to celebrate our independence from the bigoted, hate-filled politics he stood for.

Helms was the dominant political figure in North Carolina from the early 1970s until his retirement. For more then a decade before that, he had been the leading conservative voice in the state as a radio and television commentator for Raleigh's WRAL network.

After his election to the Senate in 1972, he started a political operation called the National Congressional Club that pioneered the use of direct mail fundraising techniques to build a nationwide base of fervent conservative supporters. In the process, Helms helped reinvigorate the national Republican party, laid groundwork for the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and became the far right's most infamous spokesman.

Helms urges Christians to get political in a 1980 promo spot for the Moral Majority

During Helms' heyday, the question on many people's minds about North Carolina was how could its citizens keep re-electing an extreme right wing, unrepentant segregationist, self-proclaimed "redneck" like Helms? The perception was that the state was filled with racists, or that Helms' voters were ignorant and uneducated. The reality is more complex.

For one thing, he started in Tar Heel politics as a household name thanks to his decade-long career as a radio and TV commentator -- the Rush Limbaugh of his day. Helms got lucky running for election in the GOP landslide years of 1972 and 1984, coasting on Nixon and Reagan's coattails. He faced a black opponent twice at a time when no other African-Americans were in the Senate. His national fundraising operation ensured he would almost always have a financial advantage over his opponents. And Helms shrewdly made sure his office would be second to none when it came to constituent service, helping North Carolinians navigate the federal government bureaucracy. This last factor in particular won him many votes over the years.

But Helms did rely on hate-mongering to keep himself in power. He denounced Democrats, liberals and communists in virtually every breath, then went far beyond that. Helms' vicious, bullying attacks on African-Americans, gays and lesbians, civil rights workers, the poor, and AIDS victims were legendary. His speeches, direct mail appeals, and campaign ads were a steady stream of bile.

Helms poisoned the ideological well of North Carolina politics, and helped drag the entire country further to the right. Especially damning were Helms' own words, his countless mean-spirited, prejudiced public statements for which he never apologized.

During the 1960s, Helms ruled the North Carolina airwaves. As radio and TV news director at WRAL, his five-minute Viewpoint commentaries were broadcast twice a weekday at the end of the station's morning and evening newscasts. They were rebroadcast on the 70 N.C. radio stations that made up WRAL's "Tobacco Network," and published in newspapers across North Carolina and the South.

Helms delivered more than 2,700 Viewpoints from 1960-1972, all taking hard line stands against desegregation, busing, Vietnam War protests, and anything else progressive. He blamed the civil rights movement on outside agitators, accused Martin Luther King Jr. of being a communist, and called the 1964 Civil Rights Act "the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress."

The N.C. Republican Party recruited Helms to run for U.S. Senate in 1972, against a three-term liberal Democratic Congressman named Nick Galifianakis. His name was so long it needed two campaign buttons to fit it all, and Helms' slogan was, "Jesse Helms: He's One Of Us!" Linking Galifianakis to George McGovern, who was deeply unpopular in North Carolina and would lose the state by forty points, Helms rode Nixon's huge victory to a 54% win and his first Senate term.

In 1978, he raised $8 million through his direct mail base, the most raised by any Senator up to that time. Facing a weak opponent who had been disowned by the state Democratic party, Helms outspent him by 30-1, and was re-elected with 55% of the vote.

Helms with Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office, 1981

Reagan's 1984 re-election landslide helped Helms beat popular, incumbent N.C. Governor and moderately liberal Democrat Jim Hunt by a 52-48% margin. Hunt raised $9.4 million, but Helms outspent him by nearly 2-1. The Hunt-Helms race was loud, nasty, and notable for Helms' use of gay-baiting to pull out a win.

The $26 million spent by both candidates that year funded a two-year war of political attack ads that according to the New York Times, "defined the use of saturation negative media... [and] set the stage for the search-and-destroy tactics of the 1988 Bush Presidential campaign." Jim Hunt had been expected to seek a rematch, but as 1990 approached, he announced he would not be a candidate.

Helms' direct mail money came in small amounts, with the same contributors being asked to give again and again over time. The success of Barack Obama's current presidential fundraising juggernaut rests largely on the same principle, updated for the twenty-first century using the internet. Contributors to Helms were mostly elderly conservatives who lived outside North Carolina, from whom he raised more than $15 million in contributions averaging less than $35 each between 1987 and 1990.

In 1990, Helms ran for his fourth Senate term against former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt, who was the first African-American candidate ever nominated for a U.S. Senate seat by the Democratic Party. The Gantt-Helms U.S. Senate race was the most closely watched political battle of the year. National media descended on the state, camera crews and print reporters rushing from campaign appearance to appearance as if a presidential campaign was unfolding.

Harvey Gantt

Gantt was Helms' polar opposite in every conceivable way. A proud liberal running against the most right-wing conservative in the Senate. One of the heroes of the civil rights movement, the first black student to integrate Clemson University, versus a notorious white bigot who opposed desegregation. A challenger with a positive, progressive agenda of change taking on the incumbent dubbed Senator No for his opposition to social programs, foreign aid, and AIDS research.

The most infamous Helms attack ad of the campaign was dubbed "White Hands." It showed the hands of a white male crumpling a job rejection letter, and claimed Gantt supported "racial quotas." But Helms aired many other hard hitting ads that put Gantt on the defensive. Some accused Gantt of wanting to "cut defense up to $300 billion," and of favoring abortions "in the final weeks of pregnancy," plus sex-selection abortions. Helms flooded the airwaves with attacks on Gantt's credibility, values, and race.

Gantt pulled even with Helms in polls taken that summer, and by mid-October, led Helms 49-41 in a Charlotte Observer poll. In response, Helms blitzed the state in a series of campaign rallies and unleashed a final wave of attack ads, including the "White Hands" spot, released five days before the election. He spent more than $13 million overall compared to Gantt's slightly less than $8 million. On election day, Helms defeated Gantt by a 53-47% margin.

Six years later, Gantt sought a rematch. He rallied opposition around the country to Helms and made up the fundraising gap, actually outspending Helms by $8 million to $7.8 million. Helms' bankroll was much smaller than in 1990, following a messy split with the directors of his own National Congressional Club. Helms refused to debate and his health became an issue in the campaign.

Progressives had high hopes for a Gantt victory the second time around, but he fared little better against Helms. Like he had tied his earlier opponents to Democrats like McGovern and Mondale, this time Helms capitalized on Bill Clinton's weakness in North Carolina. Clinton would lose to Bob Dole by 49-44%. Unlike in 1990, Gantt never led in polls during 1996, and Helms again beat him by a 53-46% margin.

Despite his election victories, Helms always faced opposition within the state. In his five Senate campaigns he never won more than 55% of the vote. A popular bumper sticker for years read, "I'm from North Carolina, and I don't support Jesse Helms."

To shore up his support, Helms' machine coined the slogan, "You may not agree with Jesse, but at least you know where he stands." It became a crucial part of his image. When Helms turned into a favorite target of the left, it only fired up his appeal among older, white, rural North Carolinians. National criticism consistently helped him solidify his base at home. Helms' voters said, "He's a sonofabitch, but he's ours."

N.C. editorial cartoon from 1990

In the end, North Carolina found enough reasons to keep Jesse Helms in the U.S. Senate for three decades. We may be rid of Helms, but his toxic legacy won't soon be forgotten.

Erik Ose registered N.C. voters against Helms in the 1990s as co-founder of Musicians Organized for Voter Education (MOVE). Cross-posted at The Latest Outrage.