The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics: The Personalities, Elections, and Events that Shaped Modern North Carolina

By Rob Christensen | Go to book overview

chapter 6
Jessecrats

When Jesse Helms was born in 1921, North Carolina, like the rest of the South, was a one-party state, and it would remain so for the next two generations. To be a Republican in North Carolina was something that set you apart as a freethinker or maybe a Yankee transplant—unless one lived in the GOP enclaves of the Appalachian Mountains or its foothills.

Helms helped change that. Helms was a political surgeon, transplanting the old conservative Democratic tradition into the Republican Party—making sure that Robert E. Lee was honored at GOP Lincoln Day dinners. For many people, Helms became the authentic voice of the old Cotton South. It was a South where people still stood up when “Dixie” was played, where social life still revolved around the church, and where white and black people knew their place in the social structure. Helms, who was a Democrat until age forty-nine, made it so acceptable for conservative Democrats like himself to vote Republican that state Republican Party chairman Frank Rouse coined a name for them: “Jessecrats.” The name stuck.

Helms became North Carolina’s most famous national political figure of the twentieth century. He helped transform the state into a Republican stronghold instrumental in the elevation of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, shifted the GOP to the political right, and contributed to the polarization of the nation’s politics.


Rise of the Republicans

Even during its years in the wilderness, the Republican Party was stronger in North Carolina than in most of the rest of the South—a legacy of the pro-Unionist sentiments in the nonslaveholding areas of the Mountains and foothills. Despite temporary gains during the 1928 Herbert

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The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics: The Personalities, Elections, and Events that Shaped Modern North Carolina
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Illustrations viii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Introduction 1
  • Prologue 7
  • Chapter 1 - The Simmons Machine 34
  • Chapter 2 - The Shelby Dynasty 62
  • Chapter 3 - Branchhead Boys 109
  • Chapter 4 - The Last of the Conservative Democrats 154
  • Chapter 5 - Dixie Dynamo 179
  • Chapter 6 - Jessecrats 203
  • Chapter 7 - Jim Hunt and the Democratic Revival 235
  • Chapter 8 - Phoenix Rising 261
  • Chapter 9 - A New Century 287
  • Epilogue 311
  • Appendix Endings 319
  • Notes 323
  • Index 345
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