North Carolina 2014: Following in the footsteps of history

November 10, 2014
Senator Matt Ransom

Senator Matt Ransom was elected in 1872 to the U.S. Senate as a Democrat from North Carolina and served until 1895. 


My research assistant, Jenna Ray, and I wrote a comparison of former U.S. Senator Kay Hagan to one of her long ago predecessors, Senator Matt Ransom (D-NC) who served in the age of indirect election where state legislatures elected U.S. Senators rather than the people directly.   What we found is that even after changing the U.S. Constitution to change the way we elect the Senate, striking similarities persist in  the background of Senate candidates, how they win, the role of internal party divisions, and incumbency advantage, more than 100 years later.  

North Carolina Senate Election 2014:  History repeated itself?  North Carolina Senator Kay Hagan (D) built her political career through her service in the North Carolina state legislature and United States Congress. Senator Hagan earned her law degree from Wake Forest University in Winston Salem, North Carolina, and went on to serve as the vice president of estates and trusts at North Carolina National Bank. Following in the footsteps of her uncle, former United States Senator Lawton Chiles, Hagan was elected to North Carolina State Senate in 1999. During her time in the state Senate, Hagan served as a member of the banking committee, focusing on job creation and economic stability.  

            After nearly ten years in the state legislature, in 2008 Hagan ran for United States Senate against incumbent senator Elizabeth Dole (R). Given her experience in the banking sector and the state Senate, Hagan had already established herself as a politician who was ready to handle the economic issues of the time. During the election season, Hagan raised $8.5 million dollars for her campaign, with most of her contributions coming from law firms and Leadership Political Action Committees (PACs).[1] To compare, then Senator Dole raised $19.5 million dollars for her 2008 campaign. Though Hagan trailed her competitor in finances, her campaign had the advantage of the political climate. Hagan publicly accused Senator Dole of illegal campaign contributions, poor congressional attendance, and a questionable voting record. This, in addition to the “Obama Push” of the 2008 elections, gave Hagan the upper hand in her race for Senate. The “Obama Push” helped Hagan because of her political alignment. The Democratic Party of North Carolina needed turnout among young and non-white voter groups, but their turnout was typically low. However, then Senator Obama was able to attract support from this demographic, and inspire them to vote. Since Hagan was also a member of the Democratic Party, she was able to take advantage of “straight-ticket” voting, where voters typically vote for members of the same party, to gain the popular vote, especially in those typically low-turnout groups. By opening supporting Obama’s campaign and proposed policy agenda, Hagan was able to use Obama’s popularity to gain a seat in the Senate, a campaign phenomenon that political scientists call “riding coattails”.

            During her first term as a United States Senator, Hagan held to her campaign promises, working diligently for economic reforms and military issues. She served as a member of the committees for Armed Services; Banking; Housing and Urban Affairs; Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions; and Small Business and Entrepreneurship. Seeing that North Carolina is home to both the second largest banking hub in the country, as well as Fort Bragg, which houses the largest number of generals second to the Pentagon, Hagan’s participation in these committees insures that her constituency, and the nation, sees that she is trying to enact legislation that will help their interests. However, she was hurt politically by her open support for the Affordable Care Act, and her approval rate was 35%, which made re-election daunting. In her six years as a senator, Hagan sponsored 63 bills, co-sponsored another 169 bills, and sponsored or co-sponsored 92 earmarks, which provided nearly $100 million for defense, labor, transportation, and commerce in North Carolina. For the 112th Congress, Hagan’s voting record shows that she voted along Democratic Party line 92% of the time, and only missed 1% of votes in the Senate.[2]

            With an active political career and the incumbency advantage, Hagan ran for for re-election in 2014. With a low approval rating, Republicans believedthey had a strong shot to defeat her; however, factionalism within the Republican Party appeared as if it might get in the way. Between 2008 and 2014, the Republican Party has begun to split into a number of party factions - smaller groups that typically focus on one issue - most recognizably, the Tea Party. Due to this factionalism, the Republican primary in North Carolina included eight candidates, compared to two in the Democratic Party. The ultimate winner of the Republican primary, Thom Tillis, has a background in business consulting and serves as Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives.[3]  In his run for U.S. Senate, Tillis raised $9 million dollars so far in campaign contributions, mainly from the finance sector and conservative lobby groups.[4]  Hagan ran as a candidate from a more unified party, and she was able to easily win her party’s nomination. With $23 million in campaign funding, combined with her incumbency advantage, she  appeared  more likely to keep her seat in the 2014 senatorial election than other endangered Senate Democrats but it was not to be.  Tillis won the election 49% to Hagan's 47%. 

            Direct elections have forced U.S. Senators to be more transparent and accountable in regard to their political and personal activity. However, looking back to the process of indirect elections, we can see some surprising similarities in who ran and won Senate seats in both types of electoral systems.

            Senator Matthew Whitaker Ransom, also Democrat of North Carolina, began his political career in 1858, when he was elected to the lower House of the North Carolina State Legislature. He was a member of the Democratic Party, but held alliances to the Whig party as well. In 1861, Ransom voted against both North Carolina’s secession from the Union, and the start of the Civil War, but was clearly outvoted. During the war, he rose to the rank of Major General in the Confederate Army, as he was loyal to his state and their ideologies. After General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, North Carolina rejoined the Union, though political opportunities were limited by Section 3 of the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bars former officers of the confederacy from public office. President Lincoln, however, offered pardons to many members of the confederate army, and his successor, President Johnson offered the same pardons and amnesty agreements. Ransom was granted one of these pardons, and after spending a period of time rebuilding his family’s financial resources, Ransom returned to the political sphere, this time with larger ambitions.[5]

            In 1870, Ransom ran for United States Senate against Civil War-Era governor Zebulon Vance (D) and State Senator Abbott (R). Vance won the election by a landslide in state legislature, and Ransom came in dead last. Vance’s term, however, was very short-lived, as he was never formally pardoned for his involvement with the confederacy, which forced his resignation. In North Carolina, location dictated Senatorial elections, with one U.S. senator typically coming from the eastern portion of the state, the other from the West. This tradition gave Ransom the chance to run again in 1872, this time, winning by a small margin. See for the actual ballots in the North Carolina elections. Now a member of the United States Senate, Ransom used his position to have Vance formally pardoned, and eligible for public office. He would join Ransom in the U.S. Senate in 1879.[6]

            While in office, Ransom served as a member of the committees on Commerce, Railroads, and Private Land Claims. His legislation mainly concerned land development projects, especially with concern to North Carolina. According to an article published in the New York Times on January 11, 1883, members of the state legislature believed that in his 11 years in the Senate, Ransom had done nothing to benefit the nation, North Carolina, or himself, and his voting record was questionable, especially in regards to the River and Harbor Appropriation Bill and judiciary appointments. In reality, Ransom was indeed largely inactive in comparison to other U.S. senators with whom he served. He sponsored and supported very few bills and petitions, and in those cases, the bills were concerned with issues in North Carolina, such as the Atlantic and North Carolina Railroad, and gave voice to resistance from local churches against the opening of the World’s Fair on a Sunday.[7] In his re-election campaigns, Ransom would threaten to leave the Democratic Party in order to run and re-unify the divided Republican party of the time in the legislature. Despite his constant threats to leave the Democratic Party, and the fact that he was consistently challenged for reelection by other members of the state legislature, he managed to win his campaigns in 1876 (for the 1877 term), 1883, and 1889, showing the sheer power of incumbency persisted under indirect elections.  This strategy proved fruitful until 1895, when he was out-maneuvered in his own party by Marion Butler who formed a coalition of populist and Republican supporters in the legislature.  Ransom's name was not even entered into nomination when the balloting took place.  However, Ransom did not leave public service entirely; he was appointed as the United States Minister to Mexico, and served in this capacity from 1895 to 1897, when he retired to his farm in North Carolina. Senator Ransom died in October, 1904, nine years before the adoption of the 17th Amendment.

            The major difference between Senators Hagan and Ransom (besides of course the limitations on women in politics in the 19th century) is the level of accountability and transparency in each of their careers. Because Hagan was directly elected, she was accountable to her state residents, and her voting record and legislation had a direct effect on her approval ratings, and therefore, re-election. She claimed credit for continuously worked across party lines to pass legislation that benefits not only North Carolina, but the country as a whole. Since Senator Ransom was not directly accountable to his constituents, he was able to be largely inactive during his time in the Senate, but his political alliances and leadership allowed him to continuously be re-elected.

The careers of these two U.S. Senators, separated by 136 years,  are marked by similarities and differences. In terms of differences, there is no question that Kay Hagan had to perform legislatively at a higher standard than Ransom did by introducing and cosponsoring bills, and being active in committee to point to specific accomplishments.  Ransom did little of that but still managed to persuade state legislators to reelect him.  For Hagan, her constituency remains steady from election to election, and theoretically judged her record against her campaign promises in her preceding election.  But for Ransom, the membership of the state legislature was predominantly new each time he faced reelection which meant the people who voted for him before were no longer in a position to vote for or against him in his bid for re-election; in this way, high turnover in state legislatures made accountability difficult to enforce. 

 Still the similarities are striking. Both Hagan and Ransom have law degrees, and served for a number of years before being elected to Senate. Their previous political careers aligned them with powerful members of their party, and gave them a way into Senate. They both also used a larger political figure and political climate to win their initial election, and relied on the factions developing in the Republican Party to keep their seat. In 2008, Hagan used Obama’s popularity to ride his coattails and the straight-ticket vote into her seat; in 1872 Ransom was able to use Vance’s eligibility scandal to slide through the election process. In regard to their re-election campaigns, both Hagan and Ransom aimed to take advantage of the instability within the opposing Republican Party to secure their vote.  But both of them were eventually defeated by a better organized opposition than they anticipated. 

Nevertheless, these  two Democratic U.S. Senators from North Carolina, serving more than a century apart, and elected under different rules of the game, serve as an illustration of the limits of change that can be attributed to the onset of direct elections to the U.S. Senate.  

[1] “Kay R. Hagan,” Accessed on June 26, 2014,  

[2] “Senator Kay Hagan,” Accessed on June 26, 2014,;, U.S. Congress Votes Database,

[3] “Meet Thom,” Accessed on June 26, 2014

[4] “Thom Tillis Campaign Finances,” Accessed on June 26, 2014,,  For campaign financing for both Tillis and Hagan, see Center for Responsive Politics, "North Carolina Senate Race - summary data."

[5] Clayton Charles Marlow, Matt W. Ransom: Confederate General from North Carolina, (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland and Company, 1996).

[6] Gordon B. McKinney, Zeb Vance: North Carolina’s Civil War Governor and Gilded Age Political Leader, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

[7] Index to the Congressional Record, 52nd Congress, First Session, p. 503.