"Tom Ellis was a bare-knuckle fighter for two of the greatest conservatives of the 20th century: Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms."
Moments after informing me on Sunday that Ellis died at age 97, Marc Rotterman, veteran North Carolina Republican political consultant, used those words to describe the Raleigh, N.C., attorney and canny political strategist.
"Mr. Ellis," as even law partners still called him after practicing together for decades, was the courtly, pipe-smoking man who first broached the subject of running for the U.S. Senate to Raleigh TV editorialist Helms during their regular Thursday night poker game.
The rest, as they say, is history. Both Helms and Ellis switched their lifelong Democratic affiliation to Republican and launched a no-holds-barred conservative campaign. In 1972, rolling up 54 percent of the vote, Helms became the state's first Republican senator in 80 years.
Over his next 30 years as senator, whether the issue was giving up the Panama Canal or stopping tax dollars for abortion or fighting world Communism, Helms was usually the quarterback, or at least the linebacker, for the conservative team.
And Ellis inarguably played guard for him.
In his book on Southern politics titled "Elephants in the Cotton Fields," author Wayne Grimshaw wrote how Ellis was "overseeing the entire campaign. He was the kind of friend who held Helms' hand and told him everything was going to be okay when the votes started coming in."
"And," Grimshaw added, [Ellis] was the kind of friend who one year after Helms was elected thought up the idea of a fundraising vehicle into which conservatives like himself could funnel their money to make sure it would be spent by true conservatives."
This "vehicle" was the North Carolina Congressional Club, later the National Congressional Club, which raised millions for Helms and candidates and causes he backed.
The kickoff for the club was a $25-a-plate dinner for California Gov. Ronald Reagan. It was there that the friendship between Reagan and Helms and Ellis was born. In 1976, it proved invaluable.
In April of 1976, Reagan's challenge to President Gerald Ford appeared to be out of steam. He lost—albeit narrowly—the Iowa caucuses, and primaries in New Hampshire, Florida, and Illinois. Another defeat in North Carolina seemed inevitable.
But Ellis sensed what was wrong. Reagan, then the acknowledged leader of the American conservative movement, had been running a vapid campaign based on "strong leadership" and not on the "red meat" conservative issues Ellis and Helms thrived on.
So, as the late conservative author M. Stanton Evans once put it, "Mr. Ellis and Sen. Helms hijacked the campaign from [Reagan’s national campaign manager] John Sears and ran their type of campaign."
With an introduction by Helms, Reagan made a hard-hitting television address warning that the U.S. giving the Panama Canal back to Panama's Marxist strongman would be a gain for world Communism. Other spots sculpted by Ellis and the Congressional Club featured a voice sounding eerily like the German-accented Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and suggesting surrender in the Cold War.
It was pure Ellis and Helms. And it worked. Reagan won his first primary against Ford and went on to win several more, coming within an eyelash of winning the Republican nomination in 1976. He won the party nomination and the general election four years later.
Reagan’s historic election and presidency was launched when Tom Ellis, as he so often did, followed his tremendous gut instincts in 1976. In playing the role he did electing Reagan and Helms, he was a major player in modern conservatism and a man of consequence.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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