The one major exception, and the most interesting part of the book, concerns Hunt’s only electoral defeat: his failed run for the Senate in 1984, when he took on conservative icon Sen. Jesse Helms. Pearce worked on that campaign, and his willingness to discuss the Hunt organization’s many flaws — and to recognize the quality campaigning done by Helms’ staffers, especially campaign manager Tom Ellis — gives the book depth and credibility.
The chapter also provides a fascinating look into the differences between national and state elections, and the connection between a presidential candidate at the top of the ticket and his party’s statewide candidates.
In 1984, with a weak Democratic presidential nominee, Walter Mondale, challenging President Ronald Reagan, Hunt lost to Helms by 3 points. Had he won the Senate seat that year, Pearce and others suggest he might have gone on to become president instead of Bill Clinton, another moderate Southern Democrat.
In the book, Pearce acknowledges the Hunt organization’s ineffectiveness against Helms, saying, “We did not run a good campaign.” The author adds, “Too often, Hunt seemed to be running because he wanted to be in the Senate, rather than because he wanted to do something for North Carolina. That reeked of raw ambition.”
Hunt took a lucrative job with a Raleigh law firm after that setback. But according to Pearce, Hunt still had a desire to see through many of his policy achievements — and to prolong his political career. Hunt had considered another run for Senate, either against Helms or Republican John East, but instead he waited until 1992 to once again run for governor.
At his inauguration that year, he said in typical Southern prose, “Today, people ask if there’s a new Jim Hunt, or if it’s the same old Jim Hunt. Well, it’s an older Jim Hunt, but not quite the same old Jim Hunt.”
Jim Hunt took office for the first time in 1976 and finally left the governor’s mansion in 2000, a record few in American statewide politics can emulate and few North Carolinians can forget, even though two governors have since held the office. That’s why the final chapter of Pearce’s biography bears the fitting title “The Eternal Governor.”