With media attention focused on the Republican presidential primaries and how the race could change as it moves South, I thought it would be good to add an update to my 2007 post, “The Spirit of 76: Reagan Style.” The Mark Levin Show linked to the piece yesterday, helping to motivate me to add a few additional thoughts and highlight a newer article on that race.

In my original post, I noted the deep influence former North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms had on rescuing Reagan and in turn rescuing conservatism,

Tom Ellis and then Senator Jesse Helms helped resurrect Reagan’s campaign from the dead. By spearheading a grassroots movement and focusing on Reagan’s conservative credentials, it led to a shocking upset in the Tar Heel State. Reagan’s victory meant it was the first time a sitting president had been defeated in a primary of a state where he actively campaigned. Many more primary victories for Reagan would follow.

John Dodd, president of The Jesse Helms Center, elaborated on this in a 2011 piece in the Carolina Journal. Dodd explains,

Ignoring the Washington, D.C., professionals who wanted to feature Reagan’s resume, Helms focused on Reagan’s conservative views and the difference those views would make in the way the United States made decisions on national defense, control of the Panama Canal, and relations with the USSR.

In North Carolina, with the considerable help of his political ally Tom Ellis, Helms proved that voters cared much more about these issues than the Reagan operatives realized. Following Helms’ lead, the Reagan campaign won seven more primaries in May and three in June.

Very few have understood the power of grassroots politics and his electorate more than Jesse Helms. Having the pulse of his own state, he knew it was the power of conservatism and its ideas that could transform a presidential race that already seemed over. In my Spirit of 76 post, I added,

That Republican presidential candidates try to emulate Reagan only adds to his glory, but also creates an unrealistic expectation for themselves. But If conservatism is ever going to be revolutionary, anti-establishment, and popular again, the country and candidates will have to recapture some of the Spirit of 76.

While we have discussed Mitt Romney’s Mormonism extensively on the PowerBlog, it’s quite probable that his association with private equity firms could be a bigger issue in the South, where states like the Carolinas suffer higher unemployment than Iowa or New Hampshire. How he defends his record and articulates a vision for a free-market resurgence will be critical. I suspect statements where Romney has said he understands what it’s like to fear getting a pink slip may not help him in his endeavor. Helms understood that authenticity and conservative ideas were critical to electoral success, not pandering, where suspicion is often magnified in many Southern states.