RALEIGH — Party disunity can be fatal for political campaigns in competitive races. Just ask former governor Rufus Edmisten.
Sorry, make that former gubernatorial candidate Rufus Edmisten. After serving 10 years as North Carolina’s attorney general, he won the Democratic Party’s nomination for governor in 1984. His opponent that year is the subject of my latest book: “Catalyst: Jim Martin and the Rise of North Carolina Republicans.”
Martin, who’d served six terms in the U.S. House, benefitted from several factors during his successful gubernatorial run in 1984. One was the easy re-election of President Ronald Reagan. Another was the talented team put together by Martin’s longtime political consultant Brad Hays and campaign manager Jack Hawke.
Still, lots of other GOP candidates for state office around the country had good campaign teams and were on the 1984 ballot with Reagan. Most lost. What helped Jim Martin succeed was that while his party was unified around him, Edmisten’s Democrats proved to be badly divided.
To some extent, the people responsible for this turn of events were Jesse Helms and Jim Hunt. In 1983, when the various gubernatorial campaigns were organizing, Helms and Hunt were preparing for their historic face-off. Two-term Sen. Helms would be seeking re-election in 1984. Two-term Gov. Hunt was determined to unseat him. The resulting contest would prove to be the most expensive political race in North Carolina history (when properly measured in inflation-adjusted, per-voter terms).
Both men knew that their Senate race would be the main event in North Carolina in 1984. That led them to different conclusions about the gubernatorial race, however. Helms believed a bitter Republican primary for governor would hurt his party’s prospects up and down the ballot, very much including his own. Helms had also served with Martin in North Carolina’s congressional delegation for a dozen years and genuinely liked him.
So a week after Martin’s formal campaign announcement on Aug. 18, 1983, Helms made a speech in Gastonia during which he endorsed Martin’s candidacy. Some members of Helms’s political organization disagreed vehemently with his decision. But he prevailed. Attempts to recruit other GOP candidates to the primary fizzled.
Nothing like that happened on the Democratic side. The gubernatorial primary drew 10 candidates, six of whom were experienced politicians with significant support: Edmisten, former Charlotte Mayor Eddie Knox, former Commerce Secretary Lauch Faircloth, Lt. Gov. Jimmy Green, State Insurance Commissioner John Ingram, and former state Sen. Tom Gilmore.
Jim Hunt had personal and political ties with several of them. Following the advice of his mentor Bert Bennett and others, he decided to remain neutral in the gubernatorial primary and focus on his Senate campaign against Helms. Even after the initial Democratic primary, when the top two vote-getters were Edmisten and Knox, a friend of Hunt’s from their college days, the governor declined to issue an endorsement in the runoff.
His Cabinet secretaries and other top officials declined, as well, although several privately favored Knox. But some of Hunt’s lower-level appointees announced for Edmisten. Knox perceived a double standard. He felt betrayed. After losing to Edmisten in the hotly contested runoff, Knox pointedly refused to endorse the Democratic ticket for the fall. Knox family members actually endorsed Helms in the Senate race. Knox himself would serve as a state leader of the Democrats for Reagan organization in 1984.
Embittered Knox supporters weren’t the only Democratic voters the Martin campaign went after in the General Election. It successfully courted right-leaning supporters of Jimmy Green and Lauch Faircloth. Green would later join Martin’s administration. Faircloth would later become a Republican and win election to the U.S. Senate in 1992, with Martin’s encouragement.
As for Edmisten, he remains convinced that Democratic disunity was a major factor in his loss to Martin. Still, he bounced back in 1988 by winning election to the office of secretary of state. And the affair did produce a valuable collector’s item. A campaign button stating “I Was There At The Raleigh Inn Nov. 6 When Rufus Was Elected” recently sold on eBay for $27.84.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation.