Thirty-five years ago, on March 23, 1976, voters in North Carolina helped shape the course of history. Their decision to support the presidential hopes of former California Gov. Ronald Reagan in the Republican presidential primary kept Reagan in the race for the 1976 GOP nomination and opened the way for his 1980 election as the 40th president of the United States.
Why did North Carolina voters choose Reagan instead of his opponent Gerald Ford? Ford, after all, was the sitting president. Primaries had been held in six other states, and Ford won every one of them. How did Reagan win in North Carolina?
While the full answers to those questions offer rich lessons for campaign strategists, the single most important reason for Reagan’s victory was obvious. In North Carolina, Reagan had the promise of U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms’ support. That promise meant something.
We know that in 1980 Reagan was elected to the first of two successful terms as president. We know that today that there probably are not enough stadiums in our nation to hold all of the politicians who claim some sort of kinship to Reagan. We’ve seen the highlight reels. We assume that the popular figure we remember moved from victory to victory. The real-time circumstances in the winter of 1975 and the spring of 1976 were quite different. Just about all of the seats on the Reagan bandwagon were empty. That did not deter Helms when he made his decision to support Reagan in the fall of 1973.
In mid-October of that year, the two enjoyed lunch together at Reagan’s Los Angeles home. Friends since they met years earlier, they had followed each other’s political careers with interest. When Helms ran for Senate in 1972, his TV ads included an endorsement from Gov. Reagan. Now, as they talked privately, Helms offered his strong support if Reagan ran for president in 1976.
Coincidentally, that same day in Washington, D.C., Rep. Gerald Ford was selected as President Nixon’s vice presidential nominee. Ten months later, upon Nixon’s resignation, Ford became president.
As circumstances developed, no one would have blamed Helms for determining that as a first term senator, it would be sensible for him to support Ford, whom he personally liked. However, Helms had made a promise and he disagreed with the Ford administration on some matters, particularly in the areas of foreign policy and the ever-expanding federal budget.
In what would become a familiar pattern over his 30 years of public service, Helms refused to pick pragmatism over principle. Helms had made a promise to a man whom he believed could make America "the shining city on the hill" once again, and that promise meant more than including his name on a list of supporters.
Helms devoted his efforts to the Reagan campaign. For more than a year, he traveled across the country. In Florida he rallied supporters at a statewide Reagan Steering Committee meeting with a blistering speech detailing the differences between President Ford and Gov. Reagan. In a Wisconsin television spot, Helms candidly said, "Now, you may ask: Why is a senator from North Carolina presuming to talk with us — the people of Wisconsin? It’s a fair question, and my answer is this: We’re all Americans; we share the same concerns about our country."
Between mid-summer 1975 and late summer 1976, Helms pursued every possible vote. In North Carolina, he was at Reagan’s side at breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and rallies across the state. He maintained his own barnstorming schedule to speak on Reagan’s behalf wherever he was invited. At every stop he took pains to state that his support of Reagan over Ford was about the conservative philosophy of governance that he and Reagan shared.
Ignoring the Washington, D.C., professionals who wanted to feature Reagan’s resume, Helms focused on Reagan’s conservative views and the difference those views would make in the way the United States made decisions on national defense, control of the Panama Canal, and relations with the USSR.
In North Carolina, with the considerable help of his political ally Tom Ellis, Helms proved that voters cared much more about these issues than the Reagan operatives realized. Following Helms’ lead, the Reagan campaign won seven more primaries in May and three in June.
When the Republican National Convention opened in Kansas City, Mo. in mid-August, Reagan received more than 1,000 delegate votes. That wasn’t enough to prevent Ford’s nomination, but it was a powerful showing. Reagan delegates strongly influenced the GOP platform, adding conservative planks that would influence the direction of the Republican Party well into the 21st Century.
At the close of the convention, Ford graciously invited Reagan to speak. With that speech, Reagan solidified his place as a party leader and the probable GOP nominee in 1980. It was a victory for Helms as well. By following through on his principled decision to support Reagan, he helped restructure the Republican Party to better represent conservative views. And as he watched the stream of new supporters climb on the once-empty bandwagon, he was certain that Reagan could indeed become president of the United States.