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.

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.

The resurgent GOP, however, is not the party it used to be, a party that for generations consisted primarily of ``mountain valley'' folk in the western part of the state. Traditional Republicans were whites whose forebears opposed slavery; they were usually independent farmers and tradesmen who were lukewarm to the Confederacy. Their political heirs today are people like Mr. Broyhill, or, from nearby Tennessee; former Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr.; or the current secretary of labor, William

E. Brock.

The new Southern GOP is an amalgam of these traditional Republicans and disaffected, conservative Democrats, who in this state are often called ``Jessecrats.''

The Jessecrats, many of them from the rural eastern part of the state, are sometimes viewed as ``Johnny-come-latelies'' by the old-line Republicans. And the new Jessecrats sometimes see the traditionalists as weak-kneed pragmatists who would give away the Panama Canal to win foreign friends.

The end of the racial crisis in the South, however, allowed these two factions to join on issues that each considers important, such as a strong defense, the need for greater morality in public and private life, and economic conservatism.

Andy Frazier, executive director of the Republican Party in North Carolina, suggests that the two major wings of the party probably ``agree on 99 percent of the issues, but are slightly different on the priorities they give those issues.''

He adds: ``Sometimes it has more to do with style and personality than substance.''

During the civil rights struggles, Jessecrats were people without a party, Democrats who rebelled as their national leadership nominated such ``Yankee liberals'' as Adlai E. Stevenson, Hubert H. Humphrey, and George McGovern. They returned to the party briefly in the presidential race of 1976, when the Democrats nominated Southerner Jimmy Carter. But by 1980 they were ready to resume their drift toward the GOP under the flag of Ronald Reagan.

Barry Goldwater remains a champion to many Jessecrats; he was the first to show them the way. But it is President Reagan, and his friend Jesse Helms, who won their hearts. The coming 1986 race will indicate whether these two wings of the party can build a long-term relationship with each other, or whether the GOP house is too small to hold them both.

Already, Dr. Funderburk, working closely with Helms strategists, is scoring Congressman Broyhill for being weak on certain ``anticommunist'' issues like aid to Nicaraguan insurgents, and support for President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, or ``star wars.''

Yet Broyhill is anything but a liberal, as his record indicates. Last year, for example, the conservative Americans for Constitutional Action gave Mr. Broyhill a solid 81 percent rating, while the strongly pro-defense American Security Council gave him a 90 percent rating. Meanwhile, the liberal Americans for Democratic Action scored him only 10 percent, one of the most conservative ratings in the Congress.

That has been good enough to win support for Broyhill from some conservatives here and in Washington, but not pure enough for Dr. Funderburk, or the Helms campaign organization, the National Congressional Club.

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