Helms does it again

Sandy Grady

November 08, 1990|By Sandy Grady

RALEIGH, N.C. — IN THE last campaign hours, Harvey Gantt had stood in front of wildly cheering, foot-stomping, flag-waving crowds to shout:

"This time he isn't going to get away with it!"

He was wrong.

The truth came at midnight when a beaten but defiant Gantt told his campaign workers, "I'm still smiling deep down although I hurt inside. I know we gave it our best."

Once again Sen. Jesse Helms, the muffin-faced Houdini of the New Right, had pulled off an 11th-hour escape.

Once again the pollsters had said Helms' back was against the wall. At 69, ol' Jesse's time seemed past. Most polls gave Democrat Harvey Gantt an excellent shot to become the first Southern black senator since Reconstruction.

Once again the nation was watching a Battle for North Carolina's Soul -- a bitter liberal-vs.-conservative, black-vs.-white struggle the experts predicted to be a cliffhanger.

They were wrong too. Helms still had a powerful grip on North Carolina's soul. His faithful Jessecrats, from tobacco farmers of the Eastern sandhills to textile workers of the Piedmont, came out in record mobs to give a smashing 53 to 47 percent triumph to "Senator No."

"Thank you for this mandate to continue saying no," Helms told his roaring rooters in a Raleigh hotel. "If the liberals think I've been a thorn in their side, they ain't seen nothing."

When Helms noted the congratulatory calls from conservative senators, a loyalist screamed, "What about Teddy Kennedy?"

Helms, whose ads and speeches often paired Gantt with Kennedy, snapped, "I think he's throwing up somewhere."

How did Helms survive again? After all, every major newspaper in the state opposed him; Democrats made a heavy registration rush among blacks and students; polls had given Gantt a 4- to 8-point edge. What happened?

Simply, Helms stayed alive using his old formula: race, money, and the most clever, savage TV attack ads in politics.

Helms had seemed on the ropes until the final days, an invisible, aging, out-of-touch dinosaur. Then he thundered back into the state to unleash the nation's biggest money guns. He raised roughly $12 million to Gantt's $5 million in a barrage of negative TV ads.

Always, race was the trigger. The most telling television spot showed a white worker crumpling a job rejection letter as a voice said, "Harvey Gantt, like Ted Kennedy, wants job quotas." Other ads hammered Gantt as a tool of "San Francisco gays," while Helms stood for "North Carolina values."

"Helms pushed all the right buttons," said Hodding Carter, a Mississippi native and veteran of Jimmy Carter's campaigns. "A lot of white voters decided they weren't ready to vote for a black man. Anybody who thinks race wasn't central to this election is whistling, and I don't mean Dixie."

Helms' TV onslaught paid off in voting patterns: While Gantt needed 40 percent of the white vote to win, network exit polls showed he drew less than 35 percent.

"Where Jesse's ads killed us was in the interstate corridor," said a Gantt insider.

He means the stretch where I-85 and I-77 run through the state's bigger cities of Durham, Greensboro, Winston-Salem and Charlotte. Helms ran stronger in those urban areas than he did in 1984 against popular Gov. Jim Hunt. So, in a shocker, Helms beat Gantt on his own turf.

The "undercount phenomenon" -- polls inflate black politicians' numbers as they did for Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder -- probably falsified Gantt's hopes. But Gantt was most damaged in the final hours by his upbeat, liberal campaign that failed to counter Helms' racial slashing.

In defeat, a beaming Gantt insisted to his cheering, defiant crowd, "I wanted to appeal to your best hopes and aspirations . . . To address the problems of our children, environment, health care . . . I still want to bring us together, to eliminate racism."

So much for that empty dream.

Across town, Helms was crowing, "This is an emotional moment for me. God bless America."

Houdini Helms had escaped again.

Nobody knows better how to ride the dark ghosts of race.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily B News.

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