The Conservative party's victory in the 1870 legislative election placed Zeb back into a prominent position in North Carolina politics. The acknowledged leading figure in the party, he had been selected by the party leadership as the organization's standard-bearer two years earlier. The fact that Zeb had felt constrained to turn down that honor indicated that the situation was much more complicated than it appeared to be at first sight. The old elite had been pushed to the sidelines, and there were many men who viewed themselves as deserving of party support for high offices. This caused the Conservative Party, which had been so united when the Republicans assumed power, to begin to splinter into a variety of personal followings and interest groups. In addition, the Republicans still controlled the governor's office and state patronage, which guaranteed that they would continue to play a significant role in state politics.
For Zeb, this uncertain political landscape was a place of both opportunity and danger. As the most popular and visible leader of the Conservative Party, he drew ambitious men to him who expected to further their careers by attaching themselves to the former governor. Other political leaders saw Zeb as a giant roadblock in the path to their aspirations. Still other local Conservative leaders either resented the harsh measures that Zeb had sanctioned to round up deserters and draft evaders or had been elected by constituents who still remembered the inner civil war vividly. Zeb hoped and expected to negotiate this difficult political terrain to become one of North Carolina's U.S. senators. Equally important, he wanted to reshape the political landscape to give the Conservative Party a secure enough hold on power that he could count on returning to the Senate.
No sooner had the election results become known than Zeb started on his twin missions. Almost immediately, friendly newspapers began to publish editorials that endorsed Zeb for the Conservative Party's Senate nomination. Zeb's plans were hidden from the public during this period, but a letter from George W. Swepson to Matt W. Ransom reveals the essence of his thoughts and tactics. According to Swepson, Zeb was determined to restore the former political elite to its dominant position again. Swepson told