Political sweeps

by Jordan Green


Conventional wisdom holds that Tuesday’s election will have been akin to that of 1994, when Republicans swept the polls and regained control of the US House, delivering an electoral rebuke to a Democratic president two years into his first term. It’s folly to predict anything with certainty, but instructive to look at past years when strong sentiment in favor of one party overturned the established order. In 1994, an “enthusiasm gap” between Republican and Democratic voters allowed the GOP to regain control of the US House and propelled Newt Gingrich to the position of speaker, and Republicans also took control of the NC House.


In 2006, weariness over the Iraq war — then in its third year — combined with the electorate’s shaken confidence in the Bush administration as a result of its inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina the year before, put an end to Karl Rove’s dream of a permanent Republican majority. The Democrats swept the US House races, making Nancy Pelosi the first woman to serve as speaker, but it took awhile for the Democrats to take control of the Senate…. The winds were already blowing in the Democrats’ direction as the nation slid into the worst economy since the Great Depression, setting Barack Obama up for a historic win and delivering both the executive and legislative branches of government into Democratic hands.


The Reagan revolution was the first election in my memory. In my left-leaning, tobaccogrowing, Kentucky hippie family, it was greeted as the apocalypse. Four years previously, a Democrat had won the White House for the first time in eight years. Jimmy Carter’s attempt to pursue a foreign policy based on human rights seemed to be mocked by the Iranian hostage crisis. Americans were in no mood to hear a plea for sacrifice from a sweater-wearing president in response to a national recession. What did move them was a genial former actor who talked tough to the Soviet Union, and who swayed white working-class people to peel away from the Democrats with a sense of national confidence and appeals to patriotism.


Proof that pundits are wrong in their predictions as often as they are right comes from a 1982 column by David Broder for the Washington Post. This year’s election has the feel of a political death knell for Barack Obama. Ronald Reagan’s first midterm was pretty rough, too, but 28 years later the ruddy cowboy with the megawatt smile is considered the gold standard of Republicanism. “What we are witnessing this January is not the midpoint in the Reagan presidency, but its phase-out,” Broder wrote. “‘Reaganism,’ it is becoming increasingly clear, was a one-year phenomenon, lasting from his nomination in the summer of 1980 to the passage of his first budget and tax bills in the summer of 1981. What has been occurring ever since is an accelerating retreat from Reaganism, in which he is more spectator than leader.”


North Carolina Republicans like to point out that Democrats have retained control of the NC Senate for 112 years, arguing that they ought to have a shot considering what a mess the party in power has made of things. They’re right about the duration of Democratic rule, but I always think they leave out the most interesting part of the story. Eighteen ninety-eight happens to also be the year that a white mob, organized by leading citizens, burned down a black newspaper office in Wilmington, killed black citizens, forced the resignation of black officials and restored the city to the control of the Democrats, then the party of white supremacy. Two years later, they finished the job by electing Charles B. Aycock as governor. An official report commissioned by the state of North Carolina in 2006 reports on the events of 1900: “The Raleigh News & Observer led the way among newspapers, popular speaker and gubernatorial candidate Charles B. Aycock traveled throughout the state with other speakers to preach the Democratic Party mantra of white supremacy; and Red Shirts again were on the ride, using intimidation and fear to maintain solidarity among whites and repression of blacks.”


Considering that Republican candidates have benefited from a tide of anger at the overreach of the federal government, with a tea-party base sometimes bandying states rights and secession as watchwords, it’s somewhat ironic that the only time the GOP has controlled both houses of the legislature and the governor’s mansion in North Carolina history, it came as a result of federal intervention. Republican William Holden had been appointed provisional governor in 1865 (extra points for recalling the other major event of that year), and was elected three years later. UNC-Charlotte historian Dan Morrill writes in a history of Charlotte- Mecklenburg County that “large numbers of whites were convinced they had no chance of winning the election and refused to vote” with the result that “Republicans carried 58 of North Carolina’s 89 counties.” Morrill quotes Paul Escott, a colleague at Wake Forest University on that watershed election: “Prominent men of the old elite saw their worst nightmare — an alliance among the lower classes of both races — materializing under the protection of the federal government.”


For good measure, I’m throwing in the classic anti-sweep election. Until at least 2000, the presidential election in the United States’ centennial year was the most disputed in the nation’s history. But bear with me. This ties in with a lot of what was to come: one-party Democratic rule in the “solid South,” the New Deal Coalition and still later the gravitation of white, conservative Southerners to the GOP. Democrat Samuel J. Tilden of New York initially outpolled Republican Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio — 184 electoral votes to 165, with 20 in dispute. Many people believe the battle was settled through a secret compromise in which the Democrats ceded the election to Hayes in exchange for an agreement by the Republicans to withdraw federal troops from the South, thus clearing a path for the restoration of whitesupremacist Democratic Party rule.


By 1932, the Democratic Party was the only game in town in the South — North Carolina included — but nationally the White House and the Senate were controlled by the Republicans. The stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing economic downturn had soured the public on incumbent Republican Herbert Hoover, and Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt swept the polls, carrying all but six states. Democrats also took control of the Senate and expanded their majority in the House. Roosevelt’s New Deal Coalition cobbled together Southern Dixiecrats with more progressive ethnic constituencies in the North, and would effectively govern the country for the next 36 years.


The New Deal Coalition held together until most of the South bolted into the Republican column or that of segregationist independent George Wallace in 1968, as white majorities in their respective electorates reacted against a raft of civil rights legislation passed by the Democratic Party. The 1968 contest was what political scientists like to call “a realigning election.” Shattered by disillusionment with the Vietnam war, the peaceniks sat the election out, by and large, handing the presidency to Richard Nixon. American politics began a four decadeslong march to the right, with Democrat Jimmy Carter’s lame-duck term an anomaly owing to backlash against Nixon’s Watergate scandal. The trend continued through two terms in which Democrat Bill Clinton guarded his right flank by advancing a conservative agenda.


Let’s return to North Carolina to end this exercise. For the second time in modern history, the state’s electoral vote went to the Republican presidential candidate — again, as in 1968, to Richard Nixon. The fact that the Democratic Party’s nominee, George McGovern, was arguably its most liberal in history probably didn’t hurt Jesse Helms, who became the first Republican elected to the US Senate from North Carolina since 1903, campaigning on the slogan, “Nixon needs Helms.” North Carolinians also elected the first Republican since Reconstruction, James Holshouser, as governor that year. In 1984, another banner year for the GOP, a second Republican, Jim Martin, was elected governor.