The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

women walking and carrying objects on their head

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 12 No. 5, "The Smoke Ring." Find more from that issue here.

Party control of the U.S. Senate is once again at stake this November, and 12 of the 13 Southern states have Senate seats on the line. So much national attention is focused this way, as the Democrats try to win enough seats either to give President Mondale a working majority of Congress — or to deny a second-term President Reagan the compliant Senate he has enjoyed since 1981.

The 12 Southern seats are now evenly split between parties. No currently Democratic seats seem to be in serious danger, but four states, including Texas and Tennessee, where Republican incumbents are retiring, could switch. Nationally, six seats must change hands for the Democrats to regain control — or five if Geraldine Ferraro becomes the Senate’s presiding officer, with power to break a 50-50 tie.

The major political gain accruing to the Senate majority is, of course, control of committee chairs and staffs and the resulting power to shape legislation. Progressive voters must view a Democratic victory with a wary eye, at best, given that the likely chairs of two thirds of the committees are Southerners, and many of them don’t look like major improvements on the Republicans they would replace. Some turnovers would be fairly good news for progressives, of course, but they should not labor under the illusion that they will have things their way in Washington if the Democrats regain power.


Democrats in Texas have given progressive voters the most exciting opportunity, by nominating Lloyd Doggett for the seat being vacated by John Tower after 23 years in office. A 36-year-old former University of Texas student leader, Doggett has represented Austin and environs in the Texas Senate since 1973. He has been on the side of poor people, minorities, women, tenants, labor, consumers, and anyone else with a power disadvantage. And he doesn’t just vote right; he makes things happen. He is responsible for the passage of some good legislation — notably the state’s strong sunset laws — but, Texas politics being what they are, he earns greater credit for killing or diluting bad bills. He is one of a small group of progressive senators who sometimes get results just by showing up in their filibustering shoes.

Just before the primary, the Texas Observer called his positions “nearly ideal,” and its January endorsement said, “There is no better debater on the floor of the Texas Senate, there is no harder worker, no one more thoroughly prepared, no one more principled, and no one more creative in passing legislation or blocking it.” The point is stronger coming from Doggett’s opponents. Says Texas Business magazine: “Although a born crusader who strongly believes in government activism, the Austin senator’s personal cool and brilliantly incisive mind have allowed him to avoid both the political irrelevancy and the flash-in-the-pan success that are frequently the lot of crusaders. Rather than being odd man out in the Senate, Doggett has been remarkably effective on behalf of his causes and constituents.”

That’s what progressives need in the U.S. Senate.

Unfortunately for them, however, the Republicans also have a candidate. He is Phil Gramm, and he presents as clear a choice as voters are ever likely to get. A right-winger from College Station (where he used to teach economics at Texas A&M), Gramm was the Boll Weevil Democratic congressman who sponsored, and led the floor fight for, the Reagan budget in 1981 (known as Gramm-Latta). His services to the GOP included carrying the inside news of closed-door Democratic strategy sessions straight to the White House; he was so disloyal, the Democrats stripped him of his Budget Committee assignment when they organized the House after the 1982 elections. Gramm promptly resigned his seat in January 1983, filed to run as a Republican in a special election, and returned to Congress in February. In the words of a recent Tom Wicker column, he is a man “further right than whom you can’t get.”

Money is important here in Texas, where there are 15 million people to reach and distances prevent personal campaigning in every nook and cranny: expensive media campaigning is essential. Gramm’s and Doggett’s expenditures were close to even for the primary season, but Gramm was already running against Democrats with the $3.7 million he raised before June 30, while Doggett was using his $3.1 million to win a very tight three-way primary and run-off. (He defeated Boll Weevil Kent Hance by a margin of 1,345 votes out of about a million cast in the run-off.)

Gramm’s politics give him access to big money, and he is expected to outspend Doggett by as much as two-to-one. Once the Democratic establishment recovered a bit from the significant defeat Doggett handed it in the primary, he began to get help. Most notably, Senator Lloyd Bentsen and House Majority Leader Jim Wright began working the Democratic money markets for him, and Doggett should have enough for a strong September and October campaign.

Through the summer, however, Doggett held back — a few rallies and speeches, but little else — and many of his supporters are getting exasperated at the way he let Gramm control the terms of debate. The only issue Gramm is discussing is gay rights. Doggett could have acknowledged his position in support of lesbian and gay political activists and then addressed any one of a dozen issues that should make him more attractive than Gramm to the very people Gramm thinks he can woo with a gay-baiting “smear.” Instead, Doggett kept responding, weakly and defensively, to Gramm’s ranting. Doggett has always been a scrappy fighter in the Senate, and his backers wish he’d start campaigning that way.

The popular wisdom gives rural west Texas and the affluent suburbs of Dallas and Houston to Gramm. Doggett is conceded large margins in the cities, except for a couple in west Texas, and nearly all of the black and Mexican-American vote, which delivers south Texas. That leaves the white voters of rural east, central, and north Texas — conservative but very Democratic by tradition; theirs are the hearts and minds that will determine the outcome. Their rural conservatism is what makes Gramm think he can win votes by gay-baiting and wrapping himself in a cloak of Reaganite patriotism. But economic issues — especially Reagan’s disastrous farm policies — should be much more important to them, and Doggett can have their votes if he gets that across.

Doggett’s primary victory was the second upset of traditional Democratic politics in two years. In 1982 a group of politicians running for mid-level statewide offices, led by Jim Hightower and Ann Richards, organized and registered the progressive grassroots and got out their votes: Mexican-Americans, blacks, poor people, labor, feminists, small businesspeople, family farmers — a rainbow coalition. (Yes, that’s what they called it; see SE, July/Aug. 1982.) They campaigned firmly on ideas — populist on economic issues, liberal on social issues — and they won with up to 58 percent of the votes. The months of September and October 1984 will tell whether Lloyd Doggett learned their lesson.


More of a certainty for Democrats is the race in Tennessee, where Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker is retiring, probably because he found out in 1979-80 how hard it is to run for president if you’re also helping to run the Senate. One of Tennessee’s biggest political names in this century belongs to Albert Gore, who served 18 years in the Senate and 12 in the House, and it is Albert Gore, Jr., who seems likely to win Baker’s seat. First elected to Congress in 1976, Gore has been a popular congressman from the same middle Tennessee district his father represented, and he ran without opposition in 1982.

Republicans would have had a tough time beating Gore no matter what they did. And what they have done has not helped. A three-way battle for the August 2 primary was raging, when the National Republican Senatorial Committee jumped the gun in June and endorsed front-runner Victor Ashe, a state senator from Knoxville, and sent along a large monetary gift. One of the other candidates was so outraged that he pulled out of the GOP primary and filed as an independent. He is Ed McAteer, a Memphis man who heads the Religious Roundtable and thus has strong support from the New Right. One paper has predicted he might get as much as 8 percent of the vote in November, and nearly all of those votes are subtracted from Ashe’s total, not from Gore’s.

What kind of senator will Gore be? His voting record in the House puts him among the most progressive Southerners. When Southern Exposure rated the Congress earlier this year, he scored 75 percent (SE, Jan./Feb. 1984). Ratings by other groups show he is strongly progressive on economic and social issues, yet conservative to moderate on foreign policy and military spending.


The battle of the network stars is all the rage in North Carolina, where Senator Jesse Helms is running against Governor Jim Hunt. This is the most closely watched race in the country, since it pits the Congressional figurehead of the radical right against an attractive, moderate, “New South” politician with enough strength to win, given the right circumstances and a bit of luck. Polls taken in 1983 showed Hunt with as much as a 20-point lead, but the race has closed to a dead heat.

Campaign spending here is a wretched excess. Before June 30, Helms spent $8.8 million and Hunt spent $3.9 million, and neither had serious opposition in the primary. The total will be around $22 million, the most expensive Senate race in history and an unprecedented saturation of the airwaves in a state with only five or six major media markets. In mid- August the Raleigh News & Observer reported that Helms had already aired his television spots 11,000 times, while Hunt’s had run 4,000 times, for a combined total of 125 hours of viewing time. Hunt, with less money to spend, is holding back most of his TV budget for the final two months.

This is another race with a clear ideological choice between two candidates. Helms takes the classic positions of the religious right, which seeks to force its own brand of morality on everyone else, and pushes them to extremes, including racism, anti-semitism, and virulent anticommunism. Hunt has been progressive on many social issues, including equal rights for blacks and women; he is a mainstream booster of North Carolina business, industry, agriculture, and “growth” in general. If elected, he would probably vote like a middle-of-the road Democrat, less conservatively than most other Southerners in the Senate.

Substantive issues separate these men, but most are getting badly blurred in this campaign. Helms has thrown up a home, family, apple pie, just-us-folks smokescreen, and tried to make Hunt look like a position-switching professional politico whose only permanent commitment is to success at the polls. Some of his TV ads detail Hunt’s alleged changes of position or accuse Hunt of having no position at all. Other ads go the celebrity endorsement route. Last fall, it was Tom Landry spots during “Monday Night Football.” This summer it was Charleton Heston, worried that without Jesse in the Senate the communists will overrun Mexico. And so on. Hunt has also hit hard, trying to portray Helms as a dangerous extremist. One particularly graphic TV ad links El Salvador’s far right — the death squads and leader Roberto D’Aubuisson — to Helms, D’Aubuisson’s “best friend in Washington.” The spot opens with a shot of piled-up bodies of death squad victims. In the first of five planned debates, Hunt accused Helms of failing to support the tobacco program, of all things, and attacked him more convincingly for not supporting social security and arms control and for being so right-wing he is even out of step with Ronald Reagan on foreign policy. Helms wore his folksy Uncle Jesse hat and counterattacked with vague attempts to portray Hunt as inexperienced in foreign and national domestic affairs and reiterated the sideswitching charges. Asked by the press for opinions afterward, various “political experts” gave the edge to Hunt but couldn’t say what effect the debates might have on voters.

Hunt has also begun to deflect the great non-issue of this campaign: out-of-state money. Helms began accusing Hunt of raising money from labor union PACS and New York liberals with Jewish surnames in radio ads more than a year ago, and has kept up a barrage of such complaints. But the only Senate candidate in the country who has raised more political action committee money than Jim Hunt is Jesse Helms.

According to an analysis of campaign financing in North Carolina by the Institute for Southern Studies, a shocking number of Helms’s largest individual contributors are leaders of the most extreme anti-semitic, anti-black, far right groups operating in the nation today and yesterday. The names include the Hunts and Pews of Texas, the Millikens of South Carolina, the Coorses of Colorado, who collectively pour millions of dollars into what is earning the reputation of “mainstream” New Right. More disturbing are the names of the head of the Illinois Ku Klux Klan, the Texas coordinator of the stridently anti-semitic Liberty Lobby, the national treasurer of the Pioneer Fund (which funded research to “establish” the genetic inferiority of blacks), the co-owner of the John Birch Society’s weekly newsmagazine, trustees of the National Right to Work Committee, and a horde of $1,000 donors who were also key contributors to Gerald L.K. Smith’s Christian Nationalist Crusade.

Without mentioning any of these names, Hunt leaned toward Helms at one point in their first debate and unexpectedly challenged him on the geographical source of his money: “I want to ask you right now tonight, would you join me in a pledge to accept no more money from out of state? . . . I’m ready to shake hands with you on that, if you’ll do it. Will you?” Helms ducked the question, and there was no moratorium.

What about the voters? Political scientist Paul Luebke notes that Helms’s margin in 1972 was 123,000 votes; in 1976, 110,000 votes; and that there are 125,000 more registered black voters this year. But there are more than three times that many new white voters, and the Right is sponsoring an aggressive registration and get-out-the-vote campaign in the state. Luebke believes that Helms will have trouble repeating his 1978 success in the urban counties surrounding Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Durham, and Raleigh.

Thousands of rural white voters will probably swing the contest: for 12 years they have been voting for both Hunt and Helms. Now they will have to decide, unless they sit out the race in disgust over the dirty advertising and big-bucks campaign to which they’ve been subjected. In late August, Steve Schewel of the North Carolina Independent described “How Mondale Can Win in North Carolina,” and his analysis is also true for Hunt: the Democrats will get 95 percent of the black vote statewide, and that means they need 40 percent of the white women and 35 percent of the white men, with the ratio of turnout for all groups also being a key factor.

Mississippi’s legacy of racism is still an overriding factor in its politics, and this year’s Senate race is good evidence of that. Republican Senator Thad Cochran won office in 1978 with only 45 percent of the vote because independent black candidate Charles Evers garnered 23 percent, splitting the non-GOP vote with the white Democratic candidate. Thus Cochran was considered highly vulnerable to a challenge by a Democratic candidate who could unite white and black Democrats, and party officials thought they had such a person in William Winter. Winter, a popular governor from 1979 to ’83, had been a strong vote-getter (61 percent in his gubernatorial race) with biracial support.

By early September, however, Cochran was leading Winter by 23 points in the polls, and a group of black political activists once again threatened an independent candidacy, this time by Greenville attorney Johnnie Walls. They say Winter secured black support in the past with many promises he failed to keep. They also say the Democratic Party in Mississippi simply doesn’t deserve black support because of the double standards it continues to maintain, expecting blacks to unite behind white candidates and doing little or nothing to help black candidates with white voters.

In a late August meeting with party officials, the dissidents laid out 17 demands. Among them: that the state drop its legal challenges of civil rights and voting rights litigation, that at-large elections and run-off primaries be abolished, that the party hire a black field organizer for each of the five congressional districts, that the party spend at least $9,000 on voter registration projects in the Delta district where black state legislator Robert Clark is running for Congress, and that the party put $25,000 into Clark’s campaign. They got a cool reception and no promises; soon afterward, however, the national party purchased the services of high-powered political consultant Bob Squire for the Clark campaign, and William Winter began a series of radio ads backing Clark and said television spots would follow.

In early September, Walls dropped out of contention and called for party unity. But it still appeared more and more likely that Thad Cochran, a solid conservative Reagan Republican, will be going back to the Senate in January.


Democratic Senator David Pryor of Arkansas enjoys a comfortable lead in his bid for re-election, with late summer polls giving him about 57 percent. But that’s closer than it was a few months ago, and Republican candidate Ed Bethune, a conservative congressman from the Little Rock area, has campaigned hard and claims he is narrowing the lead even more. Political observers in both Arkansas and Washington say they are keeping an eye on this race but don’t believe Pryor is in real danger.

David Pryor is half of the most progressive Senate delegation from the South (Dale Bumpers is the other half). He won his first term in 1978 with 77 percent of the vote, and he remains popular. The Reagan campaign is doing well here, but Arkansas voters are considerably more progressive than Ed Bethune. It would take a re-occurrence of something like the 1980 Reagan landslide to elect Bethune, and that does not seem likely. In fact, it was no landslide here; Reagan won Arkansas’s electoral votes with only 48 percent of the popular vote, edging Carter out by only a few thousand ballots.

Contests in other Southern states do not seem to be in doubt. West Virginia Senator Jennings Randolph is going home to retire in January, after a political career that began with his election to the New Deal Congress in 1932. His seat is bequeathed to Governor Jay Rockefeller, who has the Democratic nomination and a giant lead in the polls. Republican Arch Moore, who has been taking turns in the governor’s mansion with Rockefeller for years, might have run a good race, but he chose to run again for governor instead. The GOP Senate candidate is John R. Staese of Morgantown, the scion of West Virginia wealth based in minerals, steel, and newspapers.

Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, a conservative Democrat who won office in 1978 with 83 percent of the vote, is running for re-election. No one is betting a nickel against him, since he hasn’t done anything to disturb the people who elected him. His forte his military policy, and the defense lobby thinks so highly of him they have given him a 95 percent score on the National Security Index. (Armed Services Committee Chairman John Tower scored 100.) The Republican candidate is Mike Hicks.


In Alabama Senator Howell Heflin is also feeling secure. He first won office in 1978 with 94 percent of the vote, and 1984 polls show him to be nearly unbeatable. Heflin’s voting record isn’t much more progressive than all but the most conservative Southern Republicans. On the other hand, the Republican candidate is Albert Lee Smith, Jr., a former one-term House member whose main contribution was the invention of the Family Protection Act. This bill, which Southern Exposure renamed the Fundamentalist Christian Nuclear Family Enforcement Act (SE, Fall 1981), died an unmourned death a couple of years ago.

Senator Warren “Dee” Huddleston of Kentucky, also a typical Southern Democrat, is another incumbent shoo-in. He didn’t relax until former Governor John Y. Brown, the Kentucky Fried Chicken king, decided not to run, after much speculation that he would. Huddleston is considered safe from Jefferson County (Louisville) Judge Mitchell McConnell, who is trying to blame Central America’s troubles on him. Huddleston voted for the Panama Canal Treaty, and McConnell sees a simple progression from there. ... A July poll showed Huddleston ahead with 67 percent. If the Democrats retake the Senate, the tobacco industry will not have to worry about the friend they lose in Jesse Helms. Dee Huddleston was Helms’s right-hand man in saving the subsidy program, and he is in line to chair the Agriculture Committee.

Louisiana also has a safe incumbent in Democrat J. Bennett Johnston, a Southern conservative whose Southern Exposure rating of 29 percent barely edged out Mississippi’s John Stennis for worst Southern Democrat in the Senate. At this writing in early September, no Republican has announced for the September 29 primary, which is open to anyone from any party. If Johnston gets a majority there, which seems likely, he will run unopposed in November.


Two Republican seats are among the unendangered. Virginia Senator John Warner had a winning edge only two-tenths of a point above 50 percent in 1978, but all Democrats prominent enough to put up a serious challenge — most notably Governor Charles Robb — decided to stay away from this race. The Democratic candidate is Edythe C. Harrison, a Jewish woman from Detroit who formerly represented Norfolk in the state legislature. She is known for hard-hitting campaigning and debating, but she lacks a statewide base of support and the political establishment finds her, in the words of one observer, “too acerbic and too liberal” to win in Virginia.

South Carolina is Strom Thurmond country. There was a little flurry of midsummer excitement when Jesse Jackson changed his legal residency back to his old home state and publicly pondered an independent candidacy, but he quickly backed away. Thurmond, who has held public office here since 1932, is still incredibly popular with white voters, who make up 72 percent of the voting-age population, and he uses his office to open doors in the federal bureaucracy for a core of the state’s black leadership. No one thinks Melvin Purvis, a white minister who narrowly beat black newspaper publisher Cecil Williams in the Democratic primary, has a chance to win. Thurmond, who has softened his position as the inflexible symbol of Jim Crow — he was the Dixiecrat candidate for president in 1948 — remains a bedrock reactionary with an overwhelming lead in the polls. He will be 87 when this new term is finished. Maybe then he’ll retire. □