Helms and Hunt: The North Carolina Senate Race, 1984

By William D. Snider | Go to book overview

19. "Helms Can't Win"

"Barring an act of God, Helms can't win," Richard Whittle, a former North Carolina reporter, wrote for the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post Service in late October 1983. Whittle's statistics about Helms's "fluke" victories in 1972 and 1978 and the animosities he had stirred in Congress seemed impressive on paper. He portrayed Jim Hunt as unbeatable in down-home North Carolina: The governor "is a non-smoking, teetotaling, clean-shaven Christian whose immaculately coiffed hair and prim demeanor would suit him for a career in TV evangelism. He isn't known for cutting deals. He's known for wooing industry, boosting education and backing tobacco."

Whittle went all the way: "The roar of the battle indeed promises to be titanic. But if the volume implies doubt about the outcome, it shouldn't. It's all over but the shouting."

Whittle unveiled his predictions while the polls still showed Hunt running as much as 6 percentage points ahead of Helms. By the following spring that margin had been wiped out. Most pollsters thought Helms's massive television campaign launched in April 1983 had been responsible. Others saw the Martin Luther King holiday controversy as the major factor in the turnaround. The senator felt that way too. In a Raleigh speech before two hundred businessmen, Helms said: "I see a lot of 'Jesse in '84' buttons. I think we need a little ribbon on these that says ' Helms.' Jim Hunt's got another Jesse, and he's got [ Hunt]."

Both candidates were aware of the potential impact of the Reverend Jesse Jackson's meteoric rise on their own fortunes. Helms tried to link Hunt with Jackson in a negative way, much as Willis Smith's supporters had linked Dr. Frank Graham with blacks in 1950. The Helms group composed a fund-raising letter in February 1984 sounding a familiar theme: "Without your support, conservatives like me wouldn't even be in the Senate fighting for President Reagan, wrestling against Ted Kennedy or standing up against the budget busting legislation liberals like Jesse Jackson would love to pass each day--like the billion-dollar Martin Luther King holiday."

Along with the letter went two handbills. One showed an unflattering photograph of Jesse Jackson and selected quotes ("We want it all" and "From the outhouse, to the courthouse to the statehouse, to the White House, march on, march on.") The second showed a photograph of Gov

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