Jim Martin as a catalyst

I know the kind of candidate the Republicans need to beat Hillary Clinton or any other Democratic candidate in next fall’s presidential election.

It is not any of those running now.

That party needs somebody smart who can get along with the far right in the party without frightening the middle-of-the-road voters in the fall. They need someone with proven experience in politics and government who is still not an ordinary politician.

Former North Carolina Governor and former U.S. Representative Jim Martin, if he were 10 years younger, could be that person.

Martin’s successful campaigns for Congress and governor paralleled the rise of the Republican power in North Carolina, a state traditionally dominated by Democrats.

What were the ingredients of his political success? How much did he ride the rising tide of the Republican Party in the South? How much did his special and unique campaigns and character contribute to that rising tide?

John Hood’s new book, “Catalyst: Jim Martin and the Rise of North Carolina Republicans,” examines these questions. Hood, former president and current board chair of the John Locke Foundation, combines a traditional biography of Martin with the political history of the rise of the Republican Party in North Carolina.

The book’s title, “Catalyst,” gives a clue to Hood’s idea of Martin’s place in the growth of Republican political power. One definition of that word, according to Merriam-Webster, is “an agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action.”

Hood’s recounting of how Martin’s successful political campaigns for Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners and U.S. Congress and, especially, his two terms as governor, show how he played an important role in speeding the change from Democratic to Republican control of our state.

Martin might be more comfortable with another definition of catalyst, also from Merriam-Webster: “A substance that enables a chemical reaction to proceed at a usually faster rate or under different conditions (as at a lower temperature) than otherwise possible.”

As Hood reminds his readers, Martin was a chemistry professor long before he became a political catalyst. It was in this role that I first came to know him. He was the lab instructor in the chemistry class I took at Davidson College in 1962. Although we are not related, our families have been close. I sat beside Jim’s brother, Joe, in Davidson’s chapel services three times a week for four years. We were good friends until his death from ALS in 2006. Our fathers were loyal Davidson graduates and longtime friends.

Hood credits my father for opening the door for Jim to run for county commissioner. My father, Grier Martin, was Davidson’s president. When Republican leaders approached Jim about a county commissioner candidacy, he knew he needed approval of the college leadership.

According to Hood, textile magnate Charles Cannon and other Davidson donors “had expressed unease about what was perceived as the increasingly leftward tilt of the faculty.”

Thus, my father and Faculty Dean Frontis Johnston saw the prospective candidacy “as a great opportunity to mollify the critics.”

Hood continues, “The way President Martin and Dean Johnston saw it, even if Martin didn’t win the election, his candidacy would serve to showcase the college’s ideological diversity. And if he did end up on the county commission, so much the better for Davidson. The two gave Martin their full support.”

Could he really beat Clinton or Bernie Sanders if Martin were the Republican candidate next year? Following the reasoning of my father and Dean Johnston, in the face of the increasingly rightward tilt of the Republican Party, his candidacy would showcase the party’s ideological diversity. If he won, they might say again, “so much the better for Davidson.”

Too old to run? Maybe not. Martin is only five years older than Sanders.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.