Ronald Reagan Might Never Have Been President Without Tom Ellis
North Carolina political mastermind took a losing campaign in 1976 and set it on the road to the White House four years later
Ronald Reagan’s rise from a near-miss in 1976 to his stunning success in winning the 1980 election against the incumbent, President Jimmy Carter, was a phenomenon in United States politics. With Reagan came conservatism and conservative philosophy of government to the forefront of the American consciousness.
Reagan made conservatism mainstream. No more than five years earlier, it had been deemed extremist. But although Reagan failed in the pursuit of the GOP nomination for the presidency — by the narrowest of margins — against incumbent Gerald Ford in 1976, it propelled him into the forefront of the political arena. From then on, he stayed in American politics, winning the presidency and becoming one of the most popular and successful chief executives in American history.
We can thank Tom Ellis for that. Ellis, who recently passed away at the age of 97, did not hold back his opinions on politicians or Americans across the aisle.
“Damned if I’m willing to turn [America] over to the liberals, commies or anyone else. If we don’t protect our freedoms, we’re going to lose ’em to the communists someday,” he told an interviewer in 1979.
Ellis was not a native of North Carolina, but you never would have known it. He was born in California and went to school in New England, but detested the cold weather. He headed south for warmer climes and found them in the Tarheel State.
During the 1976 Republican presidential primaries, Reagan was losing. Iowa went to Ford, New Hampshire went to Ford, and Massachusetts, Vermont, Florida, Illinois, went to Ford. From the Iowa Caucus in mid-January to Illinois in March 16, it seemed clear that Ford was going to blow Reagan out of the water.
The Hollywood actor simply had no chance against a sitting president. His campaign was $2 million in debt, and everybody in the GOP Establishment was calling on Reagan to get out of the race. Until North Carolina.
On March 23, 1976, voters in this Southern state went to the polls, and the results were staggering. Reagan won 52 percent against Ford’s 45 percent. It wasn’t even close and was justifiably regarded as one of the biggest upsets in modern American politics. And Reagan’s win was a seminal event in the history of the conservative movement, right up there with Goldwater’s 1964 upset win in the decisive California GOP primary over New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.
And once again, we can thank Tom Ellis for that Reagan win. With his experience assisting radio commentator Jesse Helms win the North Carolina Senate seat in 1972 (the first Republican senator from the state in 80 years), Ellis realized that Reagan had to shift his focus.
The no-nonsense Ellis essentially took charge of the Reagan campaign in the state, taking away the strategy of Reagan’s campaign manager, John Sears. Sears, and others, saw the successive losses and wanted Reagan to throw in the towel.
Ellis, on the other hand, thought this a stupid and un-Reagan idea. “It would be an understatement to suggest that Ellis didn’t have time for Sears and the D.C. people,” said Carter Wrenn, a local Ellis ally, later.
“They wanted to run a character campaign versus an issue campaign. Ellis and Helms wanted to talk about the gospel and the message. It got very contentious, lots of arguing and fighting back and forth,” Wrenn said.
Ellis made it a confrontational and hard-hitting campaign, and Reagan loved it. He always understood that effective campaigning was a constant offense. The Panama Canal issue emerged in the Tar Heel state and Ellis and Reagan beat Ford about the head and shoulders on the “giveaway” of the canal.
The Washington offices of Citizens for Reagan attempted to wrest control of the North Carolina effort, but Ellis swatted them away. Ellis stayed in control, overseeing Reagan’s speeches and schedule in the state.
Over the years, many people, and not just conservatives, have thanked Tom Ellis for saving Reagan and, by extension, saving America.
He played Reagan’s seminal 1964 “Time for Choosing” speech for Barry Goldwater on television, which had propelled the younger Reagan into national politics for the first time. Clearly, Reagan’s call for conservatism echoed just as much in 1976, when the GOP was on the brink of death in the aftermath of Watergate.
Ford was seen more and more as inadequate to the nation’s call. “When Ford comes to North Carolina, the band won’t know whether to play ‘Hail to the Chief’ or ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town,’ said Charlie Black, another conservative political operative who would play a decisive role in later Reagan efforts.
“Without his performance in North Carolina, both in person and on television,” said esteemed Reagan biographer and former Los Angeles Times political reporter Lou Cannon, “Reagan would have faded from contention before Kansas City, and it is unlikely that he would have won the presidential nomination four years later.”
Over the years, many people, and not just conservatives, have thanked Tom Ellis for saving Reagan and, by extension, saving America. Ellis would have scoffed and laughed at the modern GOP celebrity consultants, spouting off on cable television, without a constituency or, in the case of many, without a clue. Ellis was too busy winning campaigns, moving the ball down the field.
Tom Ellis, RIP.
Craig Shirley is a New York Times best-selling author and presidential historian. He has written four books on President Ronald Reagan, along with his latest book, “Citizen Newt: The Making of a Reagan Conservative,” about the early career of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. He lectures frequently at the Reagan Library and is the Visiting Reagan Scholar at Eureka College in Illinois, the 40th president’s alma mater. He also wrote the critically acclaimed “December 1941.”