Thirty years ago, North Carolina waged a Senate race that even today staggers the imagination.
The Senate race between Republican Sen. Jesse Helms and Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt was between the two major figures of North Carolina politics of recent decades.
The $26 million price tag ($60 million in today’s dollars) made it the most expensive in American history at that time. The TV ads ran 19 straight months, except for a weeklong 1983 Christmas truce.
Helms was a two-term senator and a national leader of the conservative movement who had already had his likeness on the cover of Time Magazine. Hunt was a two-term, popular Democratic governor who was seen as a rising figure in national Democratic circles.
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Hunt started the race with a 25-point lead over Helms. But the contest quickly closed up after Helms conducted a weeklong Senate filibuster against making civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday – a move opposed by most white North Carolinians, polls showed.
Helms argued that King’s views are “not fundamentally different from that of the CPUSA (the American Communist Party) or of other Marxists.”
Helms ran a series of short TV commercials laying out his views on such issues as the King holiday, school prayer, school busing and the nuclear freeze and then asked the question “Where do you stand, Jim?”
The ads played on Hunt’s vulnerability as a moderate, of trying to seem to be all things to all people.
The ads also often got very rough.
Hunt tied Helms to right-wing dictators and regimes around the world, including an Army major in El Salvador who the CIA said directed death squads that killed thousands of people. One commercial opened with the sound of gunshots and photos of dead bodies that were linked in the ads to Helms.
The ads spawned a country song: “Mudslinging at Mayberry – The Ballad of Jim and Jesse.” Entrepreneurs hawked a Jesse Helms watch – with the hands running backward. Hollywood actors Charlton Heston and Andy Griffith cut TV ads for Helms and Hunt respectively.
In the end, President Ronald Reagan’s national landslide over Democrat Walter Mondale may have been the decisive factor in Helms’ victory. Reagan and Vice President George Bush campaigned for Helms, as did 30 GOP senators. In their final debate, Helms mentioned Mondale’s name 40 times. Hunt declined to campaign with Mondale when he visited the state.
Reagan swept the state with 62 percent of the vote, while Helms beat Hunt 52 to 48 percent.
Both men’s popularity took a beating in the ratings after the barrage of negative ads. But neither would ever lose another election.
Helms would go on to win two more terms in the Senate, before retiring at the end of his term in 2002. Hunt, who was ineligible to seek re-election in 1984, came back in 1992 to win two additional terms to become North Carolina’s longest-serving governor.
The two men made their peace and developed a working relationship. But when Helms died in 2008, Hunt did not attend his funeral.
The Senate race was called a battle for “the soul of the state.” But in fact, it really settled nothing – another in a series of extremely hard-fought contests in one of the most closely divided states in the country.