I'm late on this, but I needed a few days to sift through my thoughts on the former North Carolina senator following his passing on Friday. Helms represented a rare dichotomous political figure. Obviously this dichotomy wasn't of the flip-flopping variety that many associate with Washington politics, but more representative of the two sides of the man himself. There were no gray areas with Jesse Helms. People either loved him or hated him. And in the electoral arena, that can come back to bite you. But it never quite did for Helms. He lasted 30 years in the Senate, but never got more than 55% of the vote in any of his election (or re-election) bids.
But what I find interesting is the coalition(s) that he cobbled together every six years. Now the way the media has played it and the way his death and the details of his life have been knocked around the blogosphere have certainly focused upon the more racial aspects of his public career. And that is certainly part of that dichotomy I referred to above. The other part is the service aspect. And both combined to provide Helms with enough of an edge throughout all four of his re-election bids to retain his senate seat.
Well, what do you know? You're just some 30-something from Georgia speculating about the guy from afar.
True, but I grew up in the Old North State and count the events of the 1984 Helms-Jim Hunt senate race as among my first memories of politics (And you're studying presidential elections?) and one of the major roots of my interest in political science. I also had a front seat to both Helms-Gantt I and II and received my bachelor's degree from the University of Negroes and Communists (I still haven't figured out whether I fit in one, the other, or both groups in the familiar moniker Helms hung on the University of North Carolina.). And during my life in North Carolina, I heard quite a few stories about Jesse Helms. Many brought up his nightly editorials on WRAL in Raleigh in the 1960s or his actions on the floor of the Senate as proof of his bigotry and racism and still others spoke of his service to the residents of North Carolina; his constituents.
Those relating the former always voted for his opponent, whoever it was, while those who told stories of his constituent service were often willing to overlook the racial half of the man to vote for him. And it was this group, I'd argue, that formed the swing electorate in those elections. Republicans voted for him (He helped bring many Jessecrats to the party following the southern conservative Democrat exodus from the Democratic Party after civil rights.) and liberal Democrats voted against him. And while there were many overt racists who undoubtedly supported Helms, I don't believe that the majorities supporting him were racist themselves. Many just simply wanted to put the past behind them and look at the good Helms had done. And it was the small, going-out-of-his-way sorts of things that helped those voters overlook what seemed to many of the more progressive Democrats to be people voting against their own interests.
But in my experience and in the outpouring of thoughts on the man following his death last week, there has been account after account of those sorts of actions. The types of actions that David Mayhew would have called advertising in his book on the electoral connection. In Helms' case, this advertising went a long way and accumulated over 30 years helped sway a vote or two in his direction.
Helms' death and the discussions of his life's work come at an interesting time in United States political history. Yes, Obama is the first African American presidential candidate from one of the two major parties, but that isn't really the direction I'm heading in with this. The 2004 presidential election represented on one level, a contest between a stick-to-your-guns candidate and a Washington flip-flopper. George W. Bush, as president, has very much been in a similar vein to what Jesse Helms was in the Senate for 30 years, a never wavering from your positions politician. 2008, by contrast, is a change election where flip-flopping is being tolerated a bit more. That's partly because both Obama and McCain have been accused of changing positions, but also has much to do with an electorate ready to embrace a leadership style that is willing to change given the problems that face the nation. I don't mean a politician that blows with the prevailing political wind necessarily, but one willing to make a move to build a consensus in the middle. In that sense, both of the candidates in this race differ from both the current president and Jesse Helms.
The Electoral College Map (7/6/08)
Happy 4th of July!!!!