Richard Petty, widely known as “The King” for his exploits in stock car racing, is an institution. One of the original stars of NASCAR, his seven Cup Series titles hasn’t been beaten to this day and his record of 200 Cup Series wins has yet to even be approached by any other driver. Petty isn’t just a legend in NASCAR: like many stock car racing legends, he’s an institution in North Carolina.
After an esteemed career, Richard Petty retired following the 1992 NASCAR season. Like many athletes, he set his sights to another career: politics. Unlike his racing career, however, Petty’s career in politics ended in failure. But what happened, and why did this North Carolina legend fail at his big jump into politics? His 1996 race for North Carolina Secretary of State remains a prime example of election overconfidence.
A Big Recruit
Although his run for Secretary of State was his first and only attempt at statewide office, Richard Petty was not a complete newcomer to politics. He had previously served as a Randolph County Board of Commissioner for 16 years. His thin resume was not a concern for Republicans, however, who were in the midst of a century-long losing streak. Outside of three wins at Governor and one for Lt. Governor, North Carolina Republicans hadn’t elected a single statewide officer since Democrats took control of the state in 1900.
The theory went that Petty could not only win the race, but also help other Republicans as well. Mike Causey, the Republican candidate for Insurance Commissioner, hoped to ride off of Petty’s success. Unfortunately for Republicans, cracks started to show early for the Petty campaign.
A Flawed Campaign
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Richard Petty felt his name alone would carry him to victory. Most of his campaigning was spent signing autographs, and he wasn’t exactly clear as to why he would make the best Secretary of State.
His opponent, Democrat Elaine Marshall, blasted him for his refusal to give up his sponsorships or place his racing enterprise into a blind trust. For his part, Petty held his campaign to strict fundraising standards. In an article in the Baltimore Sun, it was noted that he refused to take money from “anybody who wants something”; he pledged that he didn’t owe anyone anything.
An additional concern came from Petty’s personal life. During the campaign, he faced hit-and-run charges for allegedly hitting a car’s bumper on the interstate and leaving the scene. While the incident wasn’t serious, resulting in a small fine, it gave Democrats additional ammo.
A surprise blowout
If I knew I was going to lose, I wouldn’t have run.
Those words from Richard Petty the night of his defeat have become infamous in North Carolina politics.
His defeat might not have been a complete surprise, but the margin – over 200,000 votes – was. Petty wasn’t even the best-performing Republican on election night; Auditor candidate Jack Daly came within 56,000 votes of winning his race.
Despite their high hopes, Petty both failed to win his race and failed to carry anyone else over the top. Republicans would have to wait until 2000 for a victory, when Cherie Berry won won the office of Labor Commissioner. As for Petty? He never ran for elected office again.