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Jesse Helms

When asked which political party North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms belongs to, people will respond with answers ranging from "Republican" to "fascist." This range of answers reveals that Helms is not associated so much with a political party, but with a political style.

In the recently published "The Politics of Rage," political theorist Dan Carter attempts to explain the rise of negative and inflammatory campaigning in American politics. Carter supports his theories with the figure of George Wallace, a former governor of Alabama and presidential hopeful who resisted the 1962 federal mandate to integrate the University of Alabama by "standing in the schoolhouse door."

Helms can be seen as a North Carolinian parallel to Wallace in style as well as political philosophy. An extremely conservative politician, Helms is defined more by what he opposes than by what he supports. A staunch adversary of welfare, gay rights, and funding for the arts, his name is one which has the power to inspire either pride or nausea all over the United States.

Helms' 24-year stint as a United States senator from North Carolina has earned him the distinguished position of chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. Seniority, however, is not the only thing that his four successful campaigns have gained for him. What Helms' loyal supporters view as uncompromising integrity, detractors are inclined to consider a tendency towards medieval bigotry. The senator is best known for his controversial, yet firm, stands on both social and fiscal issues that lead Christopher Scott, president of the North Carolina AFL-CIO, to describe him as "the lead dog in the arch-conservative pack."

The final weeks of Helms' campaigns usually bring television advertisements that stir up liberal and conservative voters alike. These ads are frequently designed to tap hidden social and economic fears relating to race, sexual preferences, and income. How is it that-in spite of all the ground won in the civil rights movement-Helms returns again and again to Washington by banking on the politics of extremism? In what Scott characterizes as an electorate so polarized that even before the race begins, 45 percent of people are for and 45 percent against, how is it that Helms continually captures enough of the undecided 10 percent to win?

The reasons for Helms' repeated success in holding his Senate seat are many: his historical status as the incumbent since 1978; the specific factors that drive North Carolina's politics; and finally, what can only be described as the Helms factor.

Helms' incumbency is a complicated issue. Its component parts break down into his lengthy history as a political figure in North Carolina, constituent service record and the political advantages that come with running as an incumbent. Helms began his political career as an "unofficial" researcher in Raleigh during the 1950 Senate campaign of Willis Smith. Smith won, and as a result, rewarded Helms with a job as an administrative aid. Helms stayed in Washington for three years and then returned to North Carolina to become executive director of the state's banking association.

Beginning in 1960, Helms served on the Raleigh City Council. He spent most of the '60s as a local television commentator and radio personality, where he took on the role of conservative fire-brand. Helms used his five-minute television broadcasts to lambaste Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights agenda of the Democratic party and anything that he did not see as a part of God-fearing Southerndom. In 1972, the people of North Carolina recognized Helms' political aspirations by electing him to the first of four terms as United States senator. Today, Helms is viewed by many as the political grandfather of the state, and 46 years after his political debut, Helms enjoys a political momentum unequaled in the state.

This force threatens to crush any challenger who attempts to unseat Helms. Harvey Gantt, Helms' current rival in this fall's Senate race, having served in office solely as mayor of Charlotte, has not had the exposure that Helms enjoys. In spite of this fact, Gantt gave Helms serious competition in the 1990 election. By pushing tolerance, education, and protecting Medicare and Social Security, Gantt won 47% of the vote-100,000 votes of Helms' 53-percent majority. Gantt's voter base, according to The Raleigh News & Observer, breaks down as follows: 93 percent of blacks, 73 percent of Democrats, 60 percent of those earning less than $15,000, 54 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 29, and 57 percent of those in the armed forces.

These figures help illustrate the state's varied political landscape. Indeed, the political climates of the state are separated largely according to three geographical regions: western, central and eastern. For example, western Carolina is largely white, conservative and rural while eastern Carolina is largely rural and black. Between the two, central Carolina is dominated by the population of the Research Triangle Park area. The question, "Why do the people of North Carolina vote for Jesse Helms?" is, therefore, complicated by the differences in character of North Carolina's voters.

"Helms for Senate" press spokeswoman Julie Wilkie points to Helms' constituent case-work record as one major draw to voters from all three regions. Sen. Helms receives over 2,000 pieces of constituent mail per day, a large portion of which raise individual problems with government agencies such as Social Security and the Internal Revenue Service. Wilkie speaks of the senator's willingness to "cut through the red tape of government" for his constituents; over the past 24 years, Helms has accumulated a long list of people for whom he has performed a personal and important role as an elected official.

While this is indeed the case, Wilkie does not mention the alternate list of facts that imply Helms' failures: only four states currently receives less federal funding per capita than North Carolina; only eight have more residents living in poverty; the state's carcinogenic toxin releases are the 42nd worst in the country; manufacturing wages are the 43rd worst in the Union; and the infant mortality rate ranks at a surprisingly high 44th.

Perhaps what Wilkie refers to as the "hard-working people" of North Carolina are not getting the full picture of what Helms is doing, or not doing, for North Carolina. They vote instead because if Helms has not specifically helped them, he has at very least come to the aid of family members or acquaintances.

In a discussion on incumbency theory, Mark Berger, Duke political science doctoral candidate, asserted that the incumbent in any election has a huge advantage over his opponent. That the incumbent has accrued name-recognition adds to the simple fact that he does not have to run in a primary election. The opponent, on the other hand, is forced to court a specific section of his party to win the primary. Having won the primary, however, that candidate must move toward the center of the political spectrum in order to capture the votes necessary to win the general election. This shift creates a somewhat illusory impression that the opponent does not have a consistent stance on the issues of the election. The incumbent cannot help but capitalize on this apparent indecisiveness on the part of his opponent.

Helms clearly has an advantage in the 1996 election because his 46-year history in North Carolina politics has created a set of ideological footprints that no challenger can equal. In addition, Helms has not been required to expend campaign funds to win a primary. This fact means quite simply that at the beginning of the general campaign, Helms has spent minimal funds, while his challengers are forced to enter the race having financed a primary election. In the event of a close primary, like that of 1990, this trend is magnified. Gantt began the 1990 race with his coffers depleted.


The political climate of North Carolina, like the subject of incumbency, is a many layered issue. It consists of the straight ticket component of the state's electorate, Democratic voter cross-over, and middle-class voters who relocate from other states to North Carolina. North Carolina is a largely conservative state; yet the overall progressive nature of the Triangle area is not representative of the remainder of the state. Host to three major research universities, the area is a haven for the liberal intelligentsia and has the highest saturation of doctorates in the country. The senator's consistent, fiscally conservative voting record on issues that face North Carolina as well as the United States speaks for itself. North Carolina's position on the outer edge of the Bible Belt is also a bonus to Helms, whose moral conservatism remains a great draw among Christian groups. These two varieties of conservative policies are attractive to the current Republican party.

Larry Sabato, professor of government at the University of Virginia-Charlottesville, believes that Helms and other long-standing Dixiecrat-influenced politicians also gain votes because they invented the "angry white male" image decades before the 1994 election.

"North Carolina voters more readily identify with Jesse Helms than with his opponents-whose positions on the issues are not as concretely argued as those of Helms," explains David Paletz, Duke professor of political science. All of these factors add up to the fact that Helms benefits from a substantial straight-ticket Republican vote in North Carolina.

Gantt's anti-tobacco position is no great draw among those who depend upon the plant for their incomes. The agricultural community is against any anti-tobacco politician regardless of individual party affiliations. A sizable proportion of farmers are Democrats of the old-Southern variety who now vote for Republicans in elections. Other cross-over voters include Reagan-Democrats, and Democrats who feel that while Gantt may represent the national Democratic party, he does not reflect the views of all North Carolina Democrats. Finally, another group that fits into the cross-over category are Republicans who have moved into North Carolina as middle-class suburbanites. These immigrants to the state are a substantial group of people who vote for Helms, says political science professor Paul Gronke. Using Cary, a suburb of Raleigh, as an example, he explains that middle-class Republican residents will likely vote for Helms by voting against Gantt and the threat of increased property tax that his victory might impose.


The final issue that allows Jesse Helms to win out over his opponents is described by the Helms Factor. This is Jesse-style politics and boils down to how Sen. Helms personally takes advantage of his enormous political strengths resulting from the previous two factors. The two cogs that Helms turns in his political machine are the North Carolina Congressional Club-Helms' political action committee-and his ability to redirect his opponents' selling points against them in a gross caricature of reality.

The fact that Helms has his own PAC means that he does not have to rely on the Republican party for contributions to his campaign. Helms spent almost $18 million in his 1990 campaign. As of Sunday, Helms' 1996 expenditures totaled approximately $8.5 million, or more than three times the $2.7 million that Gantt has spent to date.

What few people know is the fact that the Federal Elections Commission fined the "Helms for Senate" committee for accepting $700,000 in illegal contributions during the 1984 election. This is far from the only infraction with which Helms has been associated. His PAC was fined and ordered to reorganize for "illegally subsidizing" Helms during the same race.

The North Carolina Congressional Club also came under serious fire from the U.S. Justice Department for allegedly mailing 125,000 pre-election postcards in the 1990 election that threatened black voters with incarceration should they go to the polls, claiming they were not registered. While the Helms campaign denied any knowledge of the mailings, it also signed the Justice Department's consent decree which outlined the infractions against black voters' civil rights. That the campaign denied the infraction is to be expected; the fact that the Helm's campaign signed the decree, however, is certainly suspicious.

The postcards are not the only allegation of inflammatory or fear tactics that cloud the Helms campaign. In the 1990 election, Helms paid for an advertisement which was quickly dubbed the "white hands" ad. The spot featured an anti-affirmative action voice-over while a pair of white hands angrily crumpled an employment rejection notice.

One needs only to turn on the television to see ads displaying what Paletz describes as "Helms' ability to demonize his opponents." The Helms ads, which began this year as uncharacteristically innocuous shots of the senator playing grandfather of North Carolina who looks out for his state's best interests, have become almost entirely anti-Gantt. Helms' ads use negativity and fear-baiting to define his views. The ads portray Gantt as a left-winger who wants nothing more than to tax mercilessly the citizens of North Carolina, have homosexual teachers in every classroom and promote same-sex marriages.

Such a "grandfather" runs vicious ads like these for one reason-the ads work. Helms' ads are so effective, in fact, that Gantt's current television promotions are nothing more than attempts to contain the havoc wreaked by the senator's mud-slinging television spots. Conservative Democrats who find Gantt's image unpalatable, vote for Helms because they do not want to have their state represented by a "liberal."

In a similar manner, these advertisements affect those people who do not usually vote. By linking his opponent's names to controversial issues like affirmative action, homosexuality and taxes, Helms captures votes from a segment of the population that is not as informed as the general public. These tactics seem, to a large degree, to be a response to the long-standing trend in which Helms' challengers have enjoyed a two- or three-point lead in polls up until the campaign's closing days. For example, the 1990 victory over Gantt was decided by just 100,000 votes of the more than 1,000,000 cast. This tendency of the Helms campaign to pump huge amounts of money into television ads at the end of the election cycle enables him to win the undecided and uninformed voters, in addition to those people who already vote for him because they agree with his conservatism.

Other voters simply cannot stomach voting for Gantt, who is no longer a real person but a set of ideas that Southern Democrats simply do not see as the embodiment of their views. Helms is not an unbeatable opponent, but a black, progressive, anti-tobacco Democrat may not be the solution to the conundrum of Helms. Because of Helms' relentless attacks upon his opponent, Gantt's own efforts are not as visible as they should be to voters.

The relevant question is whether these factors have worked well enough to convince enough North Carolinians to cast their vote for Helms again. Will Helms win again in 1996? A poll conducted by Mason Dixon, a large southern polling firm, in mid-September placed Helms in front of Gantt by almost 10 points. At this point, only weeks before the election, it looks like Helms may have another six years to give almost half of North Carolina electorate a grandfatherly pat on the back and the other half indigestion.

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