The past few days since Helms’ death have given commentators the opportunity to review his career and the contributions to history.
The emphasis has been on his contributions, and in accordance with our good tradition of not speaking ill of people right after they die, the discussion of any negative impact he made has been muted.
Who then was the greatest beneficiary of Jesse Helms’ presence in North Carolina politics?
If you are listening to what most people are saying, it is the North Carolina Republican Party that owes the most. As the first Republican senator to be elected from North Carolina in the 20th century, Helms’ groundbreaking victory in 1972, they say, opened the floodgates. Each of four reelection campaigns brought more voters into the Republican fold and brought about more political victories for other Republican candidates.
Not just North Carolina, others say, he was a major national figure. Ronald Reagan and the “Reaganized” Republican Party would not have happened without Helms, who, they say, kept Reagan alive as a political figure by bringing about Reagan’s 1976 upset victory over Gerald Ford in the North Carolina presidential primary.
Of course, you’ll hear that political and religious conservatives, without regard to political affiliation, owe him a lot, too. His vigorous and inspirational cheerleading certainly mobilized and strengthened their causes.
We are hearing much more about Helms’ contributions along these lines.
But I have an entirely different idea.
What group owes the most to Sen. Helms? My answer: The North Carolina Democratic Party.
I wonder if you will agree with me.
I contend that if it had not been for Jesse Helms the Democratic Party might have lost its dominant position in state government during the time Helms was in office. Like other southern state Democratic parties in the mid-20th century, North Carolina Democrats were used to having a virtual monopoly on political power. They were accustomed to governing, but the historic lack of competition from Republicans had left them without the experience to meet competitive forces. Without the need to develop a strong unified platform or set of principles to hold it together, it had none.
Meanwhile, in North Carolina and throughout the South during the latter part of the 20th Century, Republican strength surged. First, in national elections, the “solid South,” including North Carolina, became “solid” for Republican candidates. Then, gradually but steadily, Republicans began to win control of southern state governments as well. For instance, in South Carolina and Georgia, Republicans have won and retained control of the legislatures and the governors’ mansions. Also in Virginia, Republicans won solid control of the state legislature, which they kept until last year when the Democrats regained control of the state senate by a very small margin.
Meanwhile, in North Carolina, Democrats resisted the regional trend.
During the Helms Era (1972-2008) Democrats maintained control of the state senate and, except for a four-year period during the 1990s, kept control of the state house of representatives. And, except for 12 years under Governors Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin, only Democrats have lived in the governor’s mansion.
Why were North Carolina Democrats able to hold on to power in state government when Democrats in adjoining states were losing it? What held North Carolina Democrats together, even when there was no shared positive (conservative or liberal) ideology to rally around?
Democrats who might not agree on anything else could agree that they didn’t like the things “Jesse stood for” or they didn’t like the negative and mean-spirited way they thought he operated. For them and for others, Jesse Helms’ national image was an embarrassment to their state. Fighting Jesse held North Carolina Democrats together, motivated them to work harder, and drew new people into their ranks.
So, who will miss Jesse Helms the most? You know what my answer is.