Can Tillis duplicate Holshouser’s singular victory?
When former Gov. James Holshouser died last month, many North Carolinians of all political persuasions remembered with gratitude his example of political leadership and unselfish public service.
One Republican U.S. Senate candidate has a special additional reason to be grateful for Holshouser's example. As Thom Tillis, speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, seeks to leverage his legislative service into a successful U.S. Senate race, he must be looking for examples of other Republicans who have moved directly from the state legislature to win a major statewide election such as governor or U.S. Senator.
He will find only one example, Jim Holshouser, who, while serving in the North Carolina House, won the 1972 governor’s election. No other modern-day Republican legislator has won a major statewide race.
If you are thinking that until recently Republicans in North Carolina, including legislators, were frozen out of high political office, remember their extraordinary success in races for governor and the U.S. Senate. In addition to Holshouser, there are Governors Jim Martin and Pat McCrory and Senators Jesse Helms, John East, Lauch Faircloth, Elizabeth Dole, and Richard Burr.
Only Holshouser won while serving in the state legislature.
It is not for lack of trying. In recent years, respected Republican legislators like Robin Hayes, Leo Daughtry, Chuck Neely, Patrick Ballantine, and Fred Smith were unsuccessful candidates for governor.
Democratic legislators have had a similar lack of success in winning election as governor or U.S. Senator. Current U.S. Senator Kay Hagan was the first Democratic legislator to find success in a major statewide race in modern times.
How can this lack of success by legislators be explained?
One possibility is that the work experience of a successful legislator does not necessarily coincide with the attributes of a successful statewide campaigner.
For instance, in a high-ranking legislator’s office, people flood in trying to persuade him or her to help them by giving tax breaks, providing for roads or other public investments in their communities, passing laws that help their business or other activity. With so many people courting and charming him or her, the legislator can develop an attitude of entitlement.
But on the campaign trail the role is reversed. It is the candidate who has to do the charming.
The successful legislator has to be an accomplished practitioner of backroom dealing and compromise. On the campaign trail, reports of such dealings can be used to attack the legislator’s character. Voters look for clearly stated and firmly held positions on important issues, not the kind of pragmatic wheeling and dealing that make for a successful legislator.
Legislative service is a rough and ready business. Conflicting ambitions, objectives, and personalities can result in bitter rivalries, especially within the same political party. Bitter rivals can get revenge when their enemies run for higher office by quietly working to undercut the candidate with key constituencies.
Finally, while legislators are usually popular in their home districts, the legislature as an institution is often very unpopular. People tend to blame every bad thing about state government on the group that makes the laws.
Voters can hold a legislator who runs for statewide office responsible for everything the legislature has done. If the election becomes a referendum on the work of the legislature, the legislator probably loses.
All this is bad news for Speaker Tillis. This year’s legislature has made a host of people angry, and it is not just the Moral Monday folks and Democrats. If he loses the vote of every voter who has a grudge against the legislature, he starts his campaign with a lot of ground to make up.
But he can always remember that Jim Holshouser had a lot of ground to make up, too.