Commentary

Christensen: Maybe it's the GOP's turn to rule, but which GOP?

rchristensen@newsobserver.comFebruary 15, 2014 

I often hear people say the Democrats have controlled North Carolina for more than 140 years, and it is now time to give GOP Gov. Pat McCrory and the Republican legislature a chance to see what they can do.

While it is true that North Carolina, like the rest of the South, has been dominated by the Democratic Party for much of its history, the Republicans – and what’s more important, conservatives – have a much richer history in the Tar Heel state than some may realize.

During the past 40 years, for example, we’ve had six governors – three Democrats and three Republicans. During the past 19 years, three of the five state House speakers have been Republicans.

Past Democratic dominance means different things to different people. But it is a complicated legacy that includes both the good and the bad of North Carolina – the progress of a once poor agricultural state into a fast-growing Sunbelt powerhouse as well as a history of segregation.

There was not some sudden shift in the state’s philosophy, when North Carolina voters changed the state’s political leadership from Democratic to Republican in 2010 and 2012. Surveys on voters’ attitudes by the Gallup organization show Tar Heel voters are still moderate when it comes to their political views – not particularly wedded to either party.

But what many may not realize is that even during the many decades of one-party Democratic control, the state was still sharply divided. The divisions were within the Democratic Party, with partisan bloodbaths between liberals and conservatives or between moderates and conservatives.

Some of the roughest political fights in the state’s history occurred in Democratic primaries, such as the 1950 U.S. Senate primary, when conservative Democrat Willis Smith defeated liberal Frank Porter Graham, or in the 1960 Democratic governor’s primary when liberal Terry Sanford defeated conservative I. Beverly Lake.

Conservative Democratic rule

Conservatives such as Jesse Helms, who was a Democrat until 1970, backed candidates such as Smith and Lake. Helms went to Washington as an aide to Smith. When conservatives talk disparagingly of years of Democratic control in the state, they are probably not talking about Willis Smith and Jesse Helms.

After the period of Reconstruction in 1877 and the ouster of the Republicans, the return of Democratic rule meant the return to largely conservative rule.

Two decades of Democratic rule ended in 1894 with a pitchfork revolution. The Republicans joined forces with the Populists to first elect a legislature. Then in 1896, they elected Gov. Daniel Russell, forming a coalition government or what historians call a “fusion” government. The fusionists implemented a series of liberal reforms, including making it easier for blacks to vote, raising taxes on railroads and other businesses, and increasing spending on public school and colleges.

The Democrats returned to power in 1898 and 1900 by using white supremacy campaigns. They quickly adopted Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise black voters, helping keep Republicans out of power until the 1960s.

Progressive, populist GOP

The Republicans began their comeback based on a number of factors, including a white backlash against civil rights advances and anti-war protests, opposition to new social programs, and the rising middle class.

In 1972, North Carolina elected Jim Holshouser as the first 20th-century GOP governor. In 1984, Jim Martin was elected the state’s second Republican governor, and he was re-elected in 1988.

North Carolina also elected a Republican-majority House in 1994 and a majority again in 2002, although in the later case, the GOP ended up in a power-sharing co-chairmanship when a Republican House member switched his vote.

When people say the Democrats have been in power too long, do they mean it’s time for a return to the progressivism of the Reconstruction Republicans of the 1860s, or the populist Republicans of the 1890s? Probably not. In fact, many would not even be comfortable with the Holshouser-brand of moderate Republicanism of the 1970s.

People are probably talking about returning to a conservative brand that was more similar to the Helms-Lake-Smith wing of the Democratic Party – minus the racial baggage.

But that is not how they put it.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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