North Carolina: Helms vs. Ingram

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 6 No. 3, "Passing Glances." Find more from that issue here.

“Ingram vs. Helms, ” ran the editorial headline in the Charlotte Observer. “North Carolina Doesn’t Deserve This.” 

The Observer's editorial dismay reflected the widespread shock in North Carolina’s political community following Insurance Commissioner John Ingram’s upset victory in a May 30 run-off for the Democratic nomination for the US Senate. The headline also typified the displeasure of the state’s leading newspapers and political wags at having to face a contest between two men outside the well-heeled tradition of North Carolina politics. 

Ingram’s opponent in the Democratic primary, Charlotte banker Luther Hodges, Jr., exemplified the moderately toned conservative politics that political scientist V. O. Key labeled a generation ago a “progressive plutocracy.” Ingram violated that political norm with a fiery economic populism, forcing Hodges on the defensive with the charge that the banker was the candidate of “the monopolies and special interests.” 

With the Democratic primary over, Ingram’s fall contest against incumbent Republican Senator Jesse Helms will be a battle between contestants who have each — in very different ways — built an intense following as champions of “the little people.” The very prospect of such a campaign is viewed as threatening by the proponents of a New South built on industrialization and racial moderation. Claude Sitton, editor of the strongly Democratic Raleigh News and Observer, continued his paper’s jabs at Ingram and Helms with an ominous warning: 

The contest between the two may turn into a throwback to that Southern era when wild-eyed rustics with empty slogans pitched their appeals to the lowest common denominator, or in their own cynical phrase, “put the hay down where the goats can get at it. ’’All of this is not to rule out the possibility, or the hope, that public rejection of such demagoguery will force a return to decency and a more or less informative debate on the issues. But if it does not, the truth in the ballot box next November will be the destruction of whatever is left of North Carolina’s reputation for progressive moderation. 

John Ingram is not unfamiliar with such opposition, even from his fellow Democrats. In fact, he has learned to use it to his advantage. In 1976, he won re-election handsomely when voter reaction boomeranged against the lavish campaign funding the insurance industry gave his primary and general election opponents. The next year, a massive lobbying drive by the industry resulted in legislation stripping Ingram of most of his regulatory power. He bounced back a few months later by declaring his candidacy for the Senate, vowing to take his crusade against the insurance industry to the federal level since state politicians had blocked him. When Hodges began pouring money into what eventually became his million-dollar bid for the Democratic nomination, Ingram adopted the posture of David against Goliath. It worked again. 

In the first primary, Ingram ran second with 26 percent of the vote to Hodge’s 40 percent. Ingram’s main base of support was described by the Raleigh News and Observer as the “blue collar, mill-town vote . . . people who show up at the polls to express their discontent with government.” Once the primary field had narrowed from eight candidates to two, Ingram was able to increase this following in a runoff, drawing many “conservative” voters as well as liberal, labor, and some black support that had gone to State Senator McNeill Smith in the first primary. The result was a 54-46 percent upset victory over Hodges. 

While the Republican Party is relatively weak in North Carolina — after a peak in 1972 with the assistance of the Nixon landslide, 1974 and 1976 witnessed the near extinction of Republican strength in the state legislature — Jesse Helms is expected to be a formidable antagonist in the fall. 

Republican strength has gradually grown in North Carolina, with the addition of upper-income voters in the urban Piedmont to traditional mountain Republicanism. Even in its feeble showings in 1974 and 1976, the party could still muster about 40 percent of the vote for its statewide candidates. To this base Helms adds a large and fervent personal following in the traditionally Democratic eastern section of the state.1 

Helms built this base in the 1960s when he was a television commentator on WRAL-TV in Raleigh. His editorials were rebroadcast throughout the state on the Tobacco Radio Network and reprinted in many rural newspapers. In them Helms voiced the rancor, defensiveness and pride of many whites who saw their way of life threatened by bureaucracies in Washington, black militants in the streets, or radical students at the University in Chapel Hill. In his 1972 race, Helms drew enthusiastic support from blue collar, Wallace Democratic voters with a campaign that centered on opposition to busing and an explicit appeal to “vote for one of us.” 

His media experience has served Helms well. Familiar and comfortable with television, he uses it extensively in his campaigns. Unlike many media candidates who come across as polished, Madison Avenue products, Helms takes care to retain a folksy, “down home” identification with his viewers. He also continues to communicate his views to rural voters through a weekly column he donates to many North Carolina newspapers. 

In his 1978 re-election campaign, Helms avoids much mention of his Republican ties, preferring to maintain a bipartisan image. Much effort has gone into building Democrats-for-Helms groups, headed by old leaders of the party’s right wing, such as former House Speaker Joe Hunt. 

The core of Helms’ in-state fundraising and campaign organization is the NC Congressional Club, established on a bipartisan basis in 1974. The Charlotte Observer once described the club’s membership as “a printout of the names of the executives of the state’s top 100 industries.” The club includes many Democratic businessmen and professionals tied to the party’s conservative wing, such as Dr. Archie Johnson, chairman of the NC Medical Association Political Action Committee and ally of Lieutenant Governor Jimmy Green. 

Both Helms and his campaign manager, Thomas Ellis, have deep links to the old segregationist wing of the Democratic party. Helms and Ellis began their political activities in the 1950 US Senate campaign of Willis Smith. Smith’s opponent, New Deal progressive Frank Porter Graham, was buried in a wave of red- and race-baiting that still stirs bitter memories among participants. From 1955 to 1956, Ellis served with his law partner, William Taylor, as special counsel to the Pearsall Commission, which drew up North Carolina’s plan for resisting school desegregation. Helms himself still says that segregation was not wrong “for its time.”2 

Issues Helms has taken up since his election — the Panama Canal Treaty, Right to Life, Stop ERA - carry the same message of injured national or regional pride and defense of a traditional way of life. Like his anti-busing campaign, even when his issues do not always muster the support of a majority of North Carolina whites, the fervor of the backing they draw carries a political weight the numbers alone might not show. 

Helms has become a national leader in such causes, and the support he has gathered outside the state is an important element of his strength. A national campaign to raise funds for Helms’ re-election is being conducted by conservative direct mail artist Richard Viguerie. Since mid-1977, the Helms campaign has raised $3.4 million, much of which has been plowed back into expanding the direct mail effort. Helms’ campaign staff boasts of assembling a list of 80,000 people that can be counted on for money in the months ahead. Three-quarters of this money has come from outside North Carolina. The Raleigh News and Observer reacted to this national fund-raising campaign by accusing the radical right of coming into the state and seeking to buy a Senate seat. 

Like other members of the aggressive New Right network centered on Viguerie, Jesse Helms is adept at “pushing the hot buttons” with emotional issues. “Pro-family” issues have been among Helms’ favorite hot buttons. 

A member of the board of the NC Right to Life Committee, Helms has sponsored a variety of anti-abortion measures in Congress. In 1975, when a Senate committee held hearings on constitutional amendments barring abortion Helms had his own proposal to offer. The Helms-favored amendment was so restrictive the committee debated whether it would bar the widely used IUD (intrauterine device) method of contraception. 

In 1977, Helms made a special target of the International Women’s Year (IWY) conference in Houston. At unofficial hearings that year in Washington, Helms offered a forum for Right to Life and Stop ERA activists from 40 states. No representative of the IWY Commission was invited to defend its work as Helms’ witnesses claimed that delegate selection had been dominated by “radical feminists,” “militant Marxists,” and “lesbians.” 

Foreign policy has been another Helms concern. Besides opposing the Panama Canal treaty, Helms has been a vocal advocate of closer ties between the US and South Africa. He has also befriended the Chilean junta. A 1976 visit found Helms praising the “dynamic” General Pinochet, and telling the press how impressed he had been to find the junta leader a Christian who kept a Bible on his desk.3 

Some of Helms’ most determined opposition has been aimed at labor unions. He is one of five senators pledged to filibuster against the labor law reform act. Earlier stands have opposed the availability of food stamps for strikers, the use of union dues to get out votes, and the right of municipal workers to organize. In 1975, he drew flak for using Senate stationery for a fund appeal for Americans Against Union Control of Government, a Viguerie-sponsored lobbying group. 

Helms and his political associates are closely tied to several other groups backed by Viguerie.4 Viguerie uses direct mail techniques and a computerized list of ten-to-twenty million known backers of conservative causes to fuel an array of special issue groups; those groups in turn channel funds and technical help to conservative candidates and mobilize massive grassroots lobbying on legislative issues.

Helms serves on the Congressional Advisory Board of the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress (CSFC), founded in 1974 by Viguerie with seed money from right-wing beer magnate Joseph Coors. Jackson Lee, NC state Republican chairman and Helms ally, did 1976 campaign advertising for CSFC. 

The National Conservative Political Action Committee — chaired by Richard Black, a former Helms senate aide — raises funds and provides a team of professional consultants for conservative candidates. In a direct mail appeal for the group, Helms warned that “Your tax dollars are being used to pay for grade school courses that teach our children that cannibalism, wife-swapping, and the murder of infants and the elderly are acceptable behavior....” 

In 1975, Helms chaired the Committee on Constitutional Alternatives, set up by a group of GOP right-wingers, including Viguerie, to explore the idea of bolting the Republicans to form a third party. Instead, they threw their support behind Ronald Reagan’s presidential bid. Helms’ support in North Carolina brought Reagan his first primary victory after a string of losses to President Ford. 

Reagan found the Helms forces invaluable but not always comfortable allies. At one point Reagan had to intervene to block distribution of a racist leaflet prepared by Tom Ellis. The leaflet suggested Ford had decided his running mate would be black GOP Senator Edward Brooke, a supporter of school busing. 

While Viguerie’s direct mail appeals have been the mainstay of Helms’ 1978 fund-raising, the Senator also enjoys considerable backing in the state’s business community, centered in the textile industry. In 1972, Helms drew over $40,000 in donations from textile executives. Leading donors were Hugh Chatham of Chatham Manufacturing Co. with $10,500, and Roger Milliken, a John Birch Society sponsor and Goldwater Republican, of Deering Milliken Inc. Chatham carried out a bitter 11- year war to destroy union locals in his plants. In 1972, about the time of his donation to Helms, he told the Winston- Salem Journal that he would close his mills if the union won a pending decertification vote. Deering Milliken did close its Darlington, South Carolina, plant in 1956 after a union victory there. More than 20 years later, the workers at Darlington have yet to see any of the damages which courts have awarded them, and many have given up hope of getting any payment before they die. 

Election law reforms that restrict the size of individual donations have cut down the amount the textile industry has given Helms for his 1978 campaign. But donations from executives in such firms as Blue Bell, Cone Mills, Cannon Mills, Hanes and Pine State Knitwear continue to form the core of Helms’ North Carolina business support. 

Helms also received a $750 donation from the J.P. Stevens Good Government Committee. The donation was returned because Helms’ campaign manager, Thomas Ellis, feared it might create the appearance of a conflict of interest. Ellis’ Raleigh law firm represents the J.P. Stevens Employees Education Committee, an anti-union group among Stevens workers, and also represents the company against former workers with brown-lung disease who have filed for disability compensation. 

But while Helms has strong business supporters in North Carolina, he does not typify the business-oriented conservatives who have dominated the state’s politics for decades. Luther Hodges, Ingram’s opponent in the Democratic primary run-off, was widely seen as the carrier of this tradition. 

Hodges had been seen as the front runner among the Democrats almost since he resigned as board chairman of North Carolina National Bank, the state’s largest, to run for the Senate. His campaign was bolstered by the reputation of his father, Luther Hodges, Sr., governor from 1954 to 1960. Governor Hodges had emphasized education and industrial recruitment. His policies expressed the growth-oriented business domination of the state which had earlier led V.O. Key to coin the phrase “progressive plutocracy.” 

Luther, Jr., stressed the same themes in his Senate campaign, offering himself as an “ambassador for economic development” in Washington. Hodges also emphasized programs to upgrade the skills of the state’s work force, citing his own experience while a private citizen with manpower development efforts. 

Hodges enjoyed wide business support. Unlike Helms’ textile backing, Hodges drew heavily from the banking and investment community, from retail trade, and from real estate and development interests. The difference between Helms’ and Hodges’ main backers seems typical of a split in the state’s business leadership over economic development policy. Hodges’ supporters have been more interested in promoting economic growth and consumer purchasing power within the state. Manufacturers in the low-wage textile industry, producing mainly for markets outside North Carolina, have resisted, especially on the local level, entrance of better paying industries that might force up general wage levels. 

L. K. Mann, president of Blue Bell, Inc., and a Helms backer, expressed common textile industry suspicions of Hodges’ development proposals. “Luther wants more government intervention,” Mann said, “and we’ve got too much already.” 

But while drawing broad support among the business community and conservative Democrats, Hodges’ awkward campaign style failed to draw public enthusiasm. Ingram found it easy to portray Hodges as a “silk-stocking” candidate. One Raleigh Ingram backer suggested many Ingram votes were primarily aimed against Luther Hodges. He traced this vote to a “general deep-seated antipathy to large institutions, like banking and insurance.”7 


John Ingram likes to trace his hostility to corporate monopolies to his childhood, when his mother was driven out of business as a service station operator by a giant oil company. Elected to a single term in the legislature in 1971, he joined the progressive minority. He supported or introduced a wide range of measures there, including auto insurance reforms, lower class sizes in elementary schools, a consumer protection division in the Attorney General’s office, reduction of the maximum allowable interest on loans, the 18-year-old vote, and tenants’ rights legislation. 

Elected Insurance Commisssioner in 1972, he established a consumer complaint section in the state insurance department. His major goals were to abolish an assigned-risk auto insurance plan he felt was unfair to many drivers; to fight age and sex discrimination in insurance rates; and to block rate increases he found unreasonable. Ingram claims to have held down or reduced rates for many categories of insurance. His Senate campaign stressed his success in saving people money as a consumer advocate. 

During his term as Insurance Commissioner, Ingram also hired more blacks and women for executive-level posts in his department than most other state departments put together. 

Critics — including several of the state’s largest newspapers — charged that Ingram’s rulings were often “arbitrary,” and showed an “unwillingness to compromise.” The insurance industry was able to reverse a number of rulings in court. These court defeats helped prepare the climate for 1977 industry-backed legislation gutting Ingram’s regulatory powers. 

Ingram has responded that his record of court reversals has been inflated by critics who fail to note when decisions against him were reversed by a higher court. A number of court defeats came in actions where the law left the power of the Insurance Commissioner unclear — such as age and sex discrimination cases — and set the stage for legislative action in these areas. 

The criticism of Ingram’s record has left many in the liberal community uneasy about him, wondering if he is a demagogue, all noise and posturing with few real accomplishments. This fear was fed by the extent to which his campaign focused on the issue of insurance, with other questions often untouched or dealt with only in vague generalities. 

The North Carolina Anvil, a liberal weekly published in Durham, was the only newspaper in the state to endorse Ingram before the first primary. Bob Brown, the editor of the Anvil, offered this assessment of Ingram: 

One needs a lot of trust with Ingram, although you sense and feel he will be on the right side of an issue. On specifics in Africa, and some related areas of foreign policy, he is not well-prepared. His feelings are right but he lacks the facts....His major asset with progressives is that he is accessible.... His approach in rural areas would carry him, no question of that, so why jeopardize that by raising issues that he thinks are not relevant to the “common man ” out there in North Carolina, who basically understands only dollars and cents.9 

Can Ingram attract the support necessary to defeat Helms? Many of Hodges’ business supporters will undoubtedly not be drawn to Ingram’s anti-monopoly rhetoric. And it is likely Helms will attempt to strike a more “respectable” image to garner business and moderate votes. But Ingram does have many friends among Democratic politicians at the local level. These supporters know him less as a maverick than as one who has paid his dues campaigning for local candidates. Ingram credits the support given him by such local leaders in the second primary with having played an important role in reversing Hodges’ lead. 

In the aftermath of the primary, some of Hodges’ supporters took note of the many conservative votes that Ingram had drawn. They suggested Helms supporters had turned out for Ingram to confront Jesse Helms with a weaker candidate in the fall. Ingram acknowledged he had gotten Democratic votes that had gone to Helms in 1972, but said they would stay with him in the fall. 

Anvil editor Brown suggested that Ingram could well draw votes from Helms. “Ingram can speak to the blue collar voter — the little guy who feels put upon and could go either way,” Brown says. 

The New Right’s “sunbelt strategy” puts great stress on drawing these voters into a conservative bloc on emotional, social issues like busing, abortion, or the Equal Right Amendment. The left and liberals have looked wistfully to draw them into a populist coalition of blacks and whites, labor and consumers, united by economic issues. The North Carolina senate race has surprised the state’s political establishment by turning into a contest between these two strategies. 


1.Jack Bass and Walter DeVries, The Transformation of Southern Politics, pp. 232- 238. 

2. Raleigh News and Observer, January 8, 1978. 

3. El Mercurio, International Edition, July 4-10, 1976. 

4. Americans for Democratic Action, A Citizen's Guide to the New Right, pp. 8-14. 

5. Ibid., pp. 22-25. 

6. Jules Witcover, Marathon: The Pursuit of the Presidency, 1972-1976, p. 438. 

7. Raleigh News and Observer, June 1, 1978. 

8. North Carolina Anvil, June 23, 1977. 

9. North Carolina Anvil, May 26, 1978