State Politics

How Nancy Reagan helped save her husband’s career in NC

Actor Jimmy Stewart, Nancy Reagan, Ronald Reagan and Sen. Jesse Helms in 1976.
Actor Jimmy Stewart, Nancy Reagan, Ronald Reagan and Sen. Jesse Helms in 1976. Courtesy: The Jesse Helms Center Archives

The late Nancy Reagan played a lot of roles during her 94 years: Hollywood actress, first lady, presidential confidante.

But it was her small role in North Carolina political history that had major consequences for her husband, and later for the nation.

Reagan, who died Sunday, will be buried Friday alongside the former president at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

Her footnote to N.C. history came 40 years ago this month.

It was in 1976, the last time North Carolina held a March presidential primary. That contest, like this year’s, featured a populist outsider against an establishment candidate backed by Washington and by most political insiders.

President Gerald Ford, who’d assumed office two years earlier after the resignation of Richard Nixon, was fighting for the Republican nomination.

He faced a strong challenge from Ronald Reagan, the former California governor backed by the party’s conservative wing.

With the advantage of incumbency, Ford had defeated Reagan in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary and gone on to win the next four primaries.

Reagan’s campaign was on the ropes. According to “Reagan’s Revolution,” Craig Shirley’s account of the 1976 campaign, Ford started March with $1 million in the bank. Reagan had a six-figure debt. His campaign was laying off staff. Aides were talking about a graceful exit.

Ford’s allies tried to pressure Reagan into withdrawing. N.C. Gov. Jim Holshouser, a Republican, went on TV and read a letter from fellow governors calling on Reagan to quit.

Reagan wanted none of that. Neither did U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms and Tom Ellis, a Helms operative and founder of the National Congressional Club, a conservative political machine.

“The people in the White House seem to think I should be withdrawing,” Reagan told a crowd of supporters at Raleigh’s airport. When people shouted “No” and “Stay in,” Reagan said, “You took the words right out of my mouth.”

Ellis, who feuded with Reagan’s advisers on issues and tactics, took over the Californian’s campaign in the state and sought to mount an aggressive media campaign.

Believing Reagan was his own best salesman, he badly wanted a video of a 30-minute speech the former governor had made in Miami. If N.C. voters could hear the candidate himself, Ellis thought, they’d pull the lever for him.

But back in the days before email and streaming, Reagan’s advisers balked. They thought nobody would watch a 30-minute video. Ellis disagreed.

So Helms intervened. He called Nancy Reagan. A copy of the 30-minute speech soon arrived.

Ellis watched it at a Raleigh TV studio with two colleagues, including Carter Wrenn. The campaign raised the money to air it on TV stations across the state.

“The Reagan national campaign said 30 minutes (of air time) was a waste of money,” Wrenn recalls. “Ellis stuck to his guns. And at the end of the day we raised the money to air it.”

Helms was a vocal advocate for Reagan. He touted his status as an anti-Washington outsider, just like a Democratic governor that year, Jimmy Carter. Ellis mounted an aggressive ground game. But he always considered Reagan’s 30-minute speech instrumental in winning support.

Reagan himself spent the entire week before the primary campaigning in North Carolina, often with friends like actor Jimmy Stewart. He hit Ford on foreign policy issues such as a budding detente with the Soviet Union and threats of relinquishing control of the Panama Canal.

On March 23, Reagan beat Ford 53 percent to 47 percent. That was enough to jump start his campaign and take it all the way to that summer’s convention in Kansas City.

“Had Reagan lost North Carolina … his revolutionary challenge to Ford, along with his political career, would have ended unceremoniously,” Shirley wrote. “He would have made a graceful exit speech … and faded into oblivion.”

This month The Jesse Helms Center in Wingate is marking the 40th anniversary of the primary. On March 23, it will release newly found video as well as excerpts from the 30-minute speech.

The speech that might not have been seen in North Carolina had it not been for Nancy Reagan.