Is Donald Trump really a unique political candidate? Did North Carolina ever have anybody in politics who compares with him?
When I asked that question in a column last year, I suggested U.S. Senator Robert Reynolds “out-Trumped” Trump and was so full of bunkum that it was part of his nickname, “Buncombe Bob.” Reynolds served in the Senate for 12 years beginning in 1933. He kept people all over the country entertained and shocked by planting a big kiss on Jean Harlow, the famous movie star, right on the Capitol steps; getting married five times; snubbing the King and Queen of Great Britain; and appearing in Lucky Strike cigarette advertising for a thousand-dollar payment. At 57, he married a wealthy 20-year-old Washington socialite who often wore the famous “Hope” diamond, owned by her mother.
All this and more of Reynolds’s Trump-like life and political career is set out in “Buncombe Bob: The Life and Times of Robert Rice Reynolds,” by Julian Pleasants (UNC Press 2000).
While Reynolds’s populist rhetoric and his outrageous conduct and comments still remind me of Trump, another North Carolina political figure might be a better comparison.
In 1978, John Ingram, like Trump this year, challenged his party’s establishment and convincingly beat a series of respected and well-funded party insiders in the primaries, only to have his supporters collapse into an insignificant minority in the general election.
Unlike Trump, Ingram was a Democrat and an experienced politician, then serving as North Carolina’s insurance commissioner. But, like Trump, he challenged the inside politicians and regular party establishment as he developed a reputation as champion of the little man. As insurance commissioner he confronted the big insurance companies and consistently rejected their requests for rate increases. The insurance companies persuaded appellate courts to overturn many of his rulings. In 1977, the Democratic controlled legislature took away his power to limit rate increases.
In 1978, first-term U.S. Senator Jesse Helms was running for re-election, unopposed in the Republican primary. Democrats, still smarting from Helms’s 1972 victory in a Republican landslide year, were hungry for a rematch. Three strong party insiders lined up in the primaries to compete for the chance to run against Helms.
McNeill Smith and Lawrence Davis were respected lawyers with experience as state legislators. Luther Hodges, Jr., had been a powerful banker and was the son of a popular governor. Insider Democrats were confident that any one of these, or almost any regular Democrat, could beat Helms in the general election.
They did not give the populist outsider Ingram a chance. But in the first primary, Ingram, with 25% of the vote, came in a strong second to Hodges, who was first with 40%.
Because of his vast advantage in campaign funding and strong support from party insiders, Hodges was the overwhelming favorite to beat Ingram in the primary run-off.
But Ingram rallied his populist, anti-party-establishment supporters to beat Hodges convincingly by nine-percentage points in the run-off.
Having run against the party establishment in the primaries, Ingram, like Trump today, faced a challenge in bringing the party establishment to his cause, even to defeat an opponent they despised: Helms in Ingram’s case; Hillary Clinton in Trump’s.
Without enthusiastic support from Democratic Party leadership in the general election, Ingram lost to Helms by nine-percentage points, losing the Democrats’ best chance to derail the Helm’s revolution.
If Hodges had beat Ingram and Helms and won a Senate seat, would he have been able to survive the Republican surge in North Carolina to win re-election? Would the Helms wing of the Republican Party have survived without his presence in the Senate?
Will Republicans do better with an outsider leading the ticket than North Carolina Democrats did in 1978?
I don’t know.
Ironically, what we do know is Democratic insider favorites of 1978, Luther Hodges, Jr., and Lawrence Davis, are registered Republicans today.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.