Like Thad Cochran in 2014, Carter’s camp played the race card in flyers and radio ads to smear their opponent.
By Ryan S. Walters | @ryanswalters73
Six years before his improbable election as President in 1976, Jimmy Carter won his race for Georgia’s governorship. Running as a Democrat in the waning days of the “Solid South,” the victor in the party primary most assuredly would carry the state in November. Having tried and failed four years earlier in 1966, this race would be Jimmy’s last hurrah.
And with his eyes already on the presidency, he would not fail a second time; for after that 1966 defeat, in smug, arrogant language reminiscent of George Wallace, Carter vowed that he would “never lose again.” No matter what it took to win, he would do it, even if he had to use the “tried-but-true” Southern tactic of race baiting, even while simultaneously playing up his new “born again Christian” status.
In the 1970 contest, Carter, the former state senator and school board member, would face numerous candidates but the most serious would be the popular Carl Sanders, who had previously served a term in the governor’s mansion. But instead of taking a high road and labeling Sanders a racist and racial demagogue, as one might expect the venerable Jimmy Carter to do, the campaign instead positioned itself where the votes were, to the right of Sanders, making the former governor appear as a liberal and racial reconciler.
Huddling in what they themselves called the “stink tank,” Carter’s brain trust devised the strategy to take down Sanders. It was a two-pronged offensive: First, persuade white Democrats that Carter was the more conservative candidate and swing their support toward him, and second, to take black votes away from Sanders, funneling them to another candidate.
In the first prong, Carter embraced the segregation tradition and the racist agitators who defended it, like the popular Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace, who white Georgians greatly admired. As governor from 1963 to 1967, Sanders had refused to allow Wallace to speak to the Georgia Legislature and Carter was quick to condemn him for that move.
Carter also welcomed Georgia’s own segregationist heroes. In those days Georgia governors could not succeed themselves, and the sitting governor, who had bested Carter in 1966, was Lester Maddox, the arch-segregationist who once used a bare ax handle to chase away a group of blacks who were attempting to integrate his Atlanta restaurant. Being unable to run for a second term, Maddox ran for Lt. Governor instead, eventually serving on the same ticket as Carter, who affectionately described Maddox as “the essence of the Democratic Party.”
After both Carter and Maddox won their respective nominations, Carter said of his running mate, “I am proud to be on the ticket with him. Despite reports we have heard, there has never been any difference between us in the primary.”
A second tactic was to create a hard-hitting flyer that could be posted or mailed to conservative white Democrats around the state, those who supported Wallace and Maddox. The idea was to make them understand that it was Jimmy Carter who more closely held their views, not Carl Sanders.
As Steven F. Hayward recounts in his book, The Real Jimmy Carter,
“the anonymous mailer was sent to barbershops, country churches, and rural law enforcement officers containing a grainy photo of Sanders, part owner of the Atlanta Hawks NBA franchise, at an after-game locker room victory celebration. Two black players were pouring champagne over Sanders’s head. The Atlanta Constitution noted, ‘In the context of the sports pages, it was a routine shot…. But in the context of this political campaign it was a dangerous smear that injected both race, alcohol, and high living into the campaign.’ Carter’s senior campaign aides Bill Pope, Hamilton Jordan, and Jerry Rafshoon were behind the mailing; Pope was even spotted passing out the flyers at a Ku Klux Klan rally…. The Carter campaign also produced a leaflet noting that Sanders had paid tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Another flyer pointed out the backing Sanders received from prominent leftwing national Democrats such as Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson, his snubbing of Wallace, and his support from prominent blacks as well as the entire black voting bloc. White Democrats across Georgia in 1970 would not take kindly to Sanders and his friends in the not-so-subtle reminder.
In the second prong, the Carter team wanted to deprive black votes from Sanders. Because the race also featured a black candidate named C. B. King, a prominent attorney and Civil Rights activist, the idea was to persuade blacks to back King rather than Sanders. And given the fact that King did not have much money in his campaign coffer, Carter bankrolled pro-King radio ads in heavily populated black areas around the state, specifically Atlanta, in the hopes of persuading more black voters to support King. The ads were from a group called Concerned Citizens for C. B. King, which King himself had never heard of.
To further aid in this endeavor, Carter’s “stink tank” printed 50,000 flyers to be distributed in the black communities that accused Sanders of breaking a campaign promise during his term as governor to appoint blacks to government positions. The flyers were from another unknown group called the Black Concern Committee.
The results of the nefarious tactics and smear campaign paid off, as Carter bested Sanders by 12 points in the primary election, even though he did not secure the necessary majority, sending the race to a run-off election. Sanders, angered over Carter’s devices, did not take the high road during the run-off, stooping to Carter’s level and turning the race into a mud fest, ensuring Carter would win easily. He claimed the governorship in November and the rest, as they say, is history.
It’s always an interesting aspect of American history to study political megalomaniacs and see what they will do to win an elective office, despite their contradictory high-minded rhetoric.
Jesus warned us of such people in Matthew. “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing,” he told his disciples, “but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.”
In our politics, as well as our faith, we would do well to remember His advice. But that is not to say that it is exclusively Democrats who engage in this type of disgusting and revolting behavior. We now know that Establishment Republicans are just as willing to use the race card to smear a conservative candidate.
As a nation we will never move past racial politics so long as power-hungry men use such tactics to gain and keep political offices. Those that do should be removed as soon as possible, for if they will engage in such tactics to win an office, they will never have the best interests of the people at heart. And our history has only proven this to be true.
Steven F. Hayward, The Real Jimmy Carter (2004)
Victor Lasky, Jimmy Carter: The Man & The Myth (1979)