Tom Campbell: North Carolina’s five political revolutions

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 21, 2024

By Tom Campbell

How would you describe the political climate in North Carolina? That’s the question I pondered as I prepared to speak at the annual meeting of the Friends of East Carolina University Library.

Few could argue that we are in the midst of a political revolution and it is easy to say the catalyst for it is Donald Trump. But is Trump the instigator or just the face of it?

Research reveals that this isn’t the first political revolution our state has experienced. An effective case can be made that it is the fifth.

The first dates back to colonial North Carolina. Our colony was a leader in the revolution against Britain. The 1774 First Provincial Congress held in New Bern, was the first in America staged without approval from the royal governor. The Edenton Tea Party was the first known instance where women in America acted in political resistance. The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, while arguable, was the first such declaration in the colonies. The Fourth Provincial Congress, held in Halifax, was the first to instruct delegates to the Continental Congress to vote for independence. Our “First in Freedom” claim is true.

The second revolution began after North Carolina reluctantly joined our neighbors in seceding from the union. The Civil War was unarguably a revolution. In the aftermath, our state and local governments collapsed; we came under military rule. Scalawags (white Southerners who supported the Republican Party), carpetbaggers (recent arrivals from the North) and Freedmen were in charge until 1870, when the Conservative Party (former Whigs and old order Democrats) gained control. The capstone of this third Revolution was the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot.

Throughout all of the 20th century, with few exceptions, Democrats controlled North Carolina. When I registered to vote, three-fourths of registered voters were Democrats. Republicans didn’t have enough candidates to hold contested primaries. Red Cavendish, chairman of the Pitt County Republican Party, quipped he could hold a county Republican convention in the phone booth on the courthouse lawn.

The fourth revolution was so slow in evolving that many didn’t recognize it, but there were obvious signals. The first was the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education Supreme Court decision declaring segregated schools unconstitutional. Fayetteville Democrat Terry Sanford broke with the tradition of conservative when he proclaimed himself a liberal and was elected governor in 1960, remembered for his unpopular food tax. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicaid and Medicare demonstrated that Democrats were moving more to the left. Even LBJ acknowledged Democrats had lost the South, at least for a generation.

We were astonished when Republican Jim Gardner defeated 30-year Congressman Harold Cooley in 1966. In 1972, Boone’s Jim Holshouser became the first Republican governor since Reconstruction. That same year, conservative Republican TV commentator Jesse Helms was elected to the U.S. Senate. And Jim Hunt may have grown up on a farm in Rock Ridge, but he was admittedly not a conservative governor. We were further surprised when an East Carolina University professor, Republican John East, became our state’s second U.S. Senator in 1984. Congressman Jim Martin pulled an upset victory in 1984 to become governor. And when Democrats nominated Michael Dukakis, at the raucous 1988 Chicago Democratic convention, donkeys started bolting from the barn.

How many times did we hear people say, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the party left me?” Wholesale defections dwindled the Democratic rolls, however over the coming decades unaffiliated voters outnumbered both Republicans and Democrats.

New Gingrich’s 1994 Contract for America and a companion North Carolina resulted in Republicans being elected a majority of our state House, with Harold Brubaker named the first Republican Speaker since Reconstruction.

The Republican revolution was punctuated in 2010, when the GOP gained the plurality in both our state House and Senate and former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory was elected governor. Republicans controlled the executive and legislative branches, however the courts, especially our appellate courts, were still controlled by Democrats,

Republicans initiated tax cuts and their cultural agenda into laws, like HB2, the infamous bathroom bill. But in 2017, Democrat Roy Cooper won the governor’s race and issued a record numbers of vetoes. Many were sustained until a Charlotte Democrat switched parties and lawmakers had veto-proof majorities. The revolution was complete when Republicans gained control of the Supreme Court in 2022.

A wildcard was injected into state and national politics in 2016. Donald Trump doesn’t fit in any philosophical cubby hole, but his influence in our state has grown so great that candidates he blesses win and those he shuns lose nominations. Kelly Daughtry’s recent withdrawal from the 13th District congressional runoff proves the point.

We are in a fifth political revolution and, is often the case in the middle of such a movement, we don’t totally understand it nor can we predict how it will turn out.

Time will tell.

Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. Contact him at This first appeared on N.C. Spin.