The Contenders: GOP Turmoil — and a Candidate's Surprising Comeback

The Contenders: GOP Turmoil — and a Candidate's Surprising Comeback
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Why you should care

Because some revolutions can’t begin until your back is against the wall.

Learn more about Ronald Reagan’s pivotal 1976 presidential campaign by watching The Contenders: 16 for ’16, a new TV series from OZY about the men and women who have run the ultimate political gauntlet in pursuit of the most powerful job on Earth. It airs every Tuesday at 8 p.m. EST this fall on PBS.

It was mid-March 1976 and Ronald Reagan had fewer primary wins than Jeb Bush, which is to say none at all. What the former California governor did have was more than $2 million in campaign debt and seven Republican governors — plus many unpaid members of his own staff — urging him to exit the race and get behind the GOP front-runner and incumbent president, Gerald Ford. The broke campaign, as the late Nancy Reagan recalled in her memoirs, had swapped its chartered jet for a leased yellow prop plane equipped with buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

So when the “Flying Banana” touched down at Raleigh-Durham, Reagan’s bold attempt to defeat a sitting president, and his very political career, looked pretty much dead on arrival. But the Gipper refused to quit, and thanks to a cadre of local operatives and some key strategic pivots, Reagan emerged victorious in North Carolina, launching a comeback that would carry him to the convention and within a hair’s breadth of snatching the nomination from Ford.

Reagan was once a joke in the party that idolizes him today.

North Carolina’s presidential primaries have rarely had much influence. Before being pulled up to March, it took place in May for more than two decades, usually long after the parties’ nominees have been chosen. And in 1976, Reagan didn’t even expect the election to get as far as North Carolina’s March 23 primary — he thought he’d have it sewn up before that.

The GOP was a party in turmoil. After Watergate and Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, Republicans had been smoked in the congressional midterms, and after Ford, who had not been elected to the presidency or the vice presidency, pardoned Nixon, the situation looked particularly dire. And so Reagan and the growing legions of conservatives within the party who followed his regular newspaper columns and radio addresses, set out to win early in 1976 and establish up front that Ford was not a true or electable president. After Ford won a narrow victory in New Hampshire, and four other primaries, however, that strategy went out the window.

It seems hard to imagine, but Reagan was once a joke in the party that idolizes him today. The GOP establishment despised him (Nixon called him a “lightweight” in internal memos), a candidate that if pushed from his talking points and scripts would fall to pieces. And it was a view that only hardened as Reagan continued to lose in 1976 and, like Rubio, had to go before the cameras time and again to say how “delighted” he was after not winning.

Things looked particularly grim going into North Carolina. The day before the primary, a New York Times headline even read “Reagan Virtually Concedes Defeat in North Carolina.” With pressure mounting and funds dwindling, an energized Reagan — fighting for his political life — changed course in North Carolina. And, as author Craig Shirley chronicles in Reagan’s Revolution, North Carolina’s cantankerous and hugely popular Sen. Jesse Helms went to work barnstorming with Reagan, who finally ditched his ever-present index cards and started speaking directly to voters. A team of local operatives led by a savvy Raleigh lawyer named Tom Ellis mounted an all-out assault throughout the state: making phone calls, galvanizing volunteers, even compiling a list of likely primary voters — unheard of at the time — from court and country records. The nonprofit American Conservative Union came forward to fund newspaper and radio ads on Reagan’s behalf.

Perhaps more important, Ellis and his Tar Heel compatriots went rogue, ignoring headquarters, campaign manager John Sears and the résumé-based campaign the D.C. professionals had been running in favor of pushing hot-button topics like national security threats from a growing “communist menace” and doubling down on Reagan’s claim that the Ford administration planned to turn the Panama Canal over to Panama. “The North Carolinians,” writes Shirley, “were running the ideological holy war that Sears had wanted to avoid.”

But it was working. And Reagan amped up his own rhetoric in turn — and started to find his voice — expressing concern about how much the U.S. was increasingly outmanned and outgunned by the Soviet Union. “We are Number Two,” Reagan argued, “in a world where it’s dangerous, if not fatal, to be second best.” And, having trailed in the polls as a distant second best himself, Reagan soared to a convincing seven-point victory in North Carolina — and there was ice cream and plastic glasses of Champagne aboard the campaign plane that night. From his triumph, Shirley tells OZY, Reagan had learned an indelible lesson: that the campaign was about him and his message to voters, not the received wisdom of consultants and pollsters.

The surprise victory raised Reagan’s stature nationally, and propelled him to a series of wins in states like Texas, Georgia and Alabama — 12 victories in all and more than 1,000 delegates. Reagan would go down to Ford at the convention in August, but, thanks to North Carolina, his political future was now viable, even if his revolution would have to wait another four years.

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The route to the White House: news, stories and analysis from on and off the presidential campaign trail.