Can `Jessecrats' hold on in Tarheel State?
North Carolina, famous lately for its bare-knuckled, high-spending political brawls, is bracing itself for another humdinger of an election that already has folks here talking. This time, the race could have long-term importance for both Southern politics and the future of the Republican Party.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
At stake is the United States Senate seat being vacated by John P. East, a conservative Republican. Outside the South, the main question will simply be whether the GOP holds on to that seat, which could be crucial to maintaining a Republican majority in the Senate.
Here in Dixie, however, the key questions are: Does Jesse Helms rule the Republican roost in North Carolina? And will the state GOP be torn apart in the current fray?
Ever since the arrival on the Southern scene of Mr. Helms, the senior Republican senator from North Carolina, elections here have been more than mere interparty struggles for power and prestige.
Senator Helms and his team wage nonstop, year-round political wars that take on the atmosphere of a crusade -- good vs. bad, light vs. darkness, Luke Skywalker against Darth Vader.
Helms has campaigned against the forces of evil -- immorality, communism, godlessness, abortion. He has championed the family, the Bible, Christian schools, and traditional values. It has won elections for him against overwhelming odds. Last year he poured more than $16 million into retaining his Senate seat, an all-time national record.
Now another tumultuous contest may be getting under way, this time within the Republican Party itself. The GOP Senate primary will pit two substantial candidates, one of them a Helmsman, against each other.
From the Raleigh area comes a college professor, former ambassador, and a conservative handpicked by the Helms team, David Funderburk.
From the traditionally Republican, western part of the state comes a moderate-to-conservative Republican congressman, James T. Broyhill.
The winner of this matchup will oppose the Democratic nominee. But it's the Republican primary that is getting all the early attention.
Some GOP leaders openly fret that their primary could become bloody and leave the party too divided to overcome the Democrats. James Hawke, chief political aide to Republican Gov. James G. Martin, told a local paper: ``I'm in a perpetual state of concern. It has that potential. . . .''
Nevertheless, the coming election should begin to answer some long-term questions about US and Southern politics at a time when there is much talk of realignment between the parties in this region -- questions such as:
Is the Jesse Helms phenomenon limited to just Mr. Helms, or can he bring others into the Senate and the House who are cut from the same cloth?
Can Helms-style Republican conservatives win office without the help of Ronald Reagan at the top of the ticket?
What is the place of moderate, longtime, traditional Republicans in the newly resurgent GOP in the South?
The GOP success story in North Carolina has been remarkable, despite some setbacks along the way. Today the party controls both US Senate seats, the governor's office here in Raleigh, and a growing number of legislative seats.
All this in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by better than 2 to 1.