RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Former U.S. Sen. Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina, a onetime conservative Democrat who switched late in his career to the Republicans and then got elected to Congress, died Thursday. He was 95.
Faircloth, who served one Senate term before losing to then-unknown Democrat John Edwards in 1998, died at his home in Clinton, said Brad Crone, a former campaign aide and close friend.
Years after an unsuccessful Democratic bid for governor in 1984, Faircloth switched to the GOP and ran in 1992 against U.S. Sen. Terry Sanford, a longtime friend and former political ally. Faircloth pulled off the upset, attacking Sanford as a big-spending liberal and benefiting politically from Sanford’s health problems in the campaign’s final weeks.
While in the Senate, the millionaire businessman and Sampson County farmer was known as one of the most partisan senators, blasting Bill and Hillary Clinton and calling for the dismantling of Cabinet departments and other federal agencies. He also got attention as a subcommittee chairman who oversaw the District of Columbia, taking on then-Mayor Marion Barry and taking away his powers.
Faircloth also spend a great deal of time in the Senate pushing for welfare reform, including a work requirement. The 1996 bill that Bill Clinton signed into law tied benefits to a work requirement.
Faircloth was eventually upstaged by the charismatic Edwards, 25 years his junior. Before the end of the 1998 campaign, Faircloth had fired his campaign consultant and tried to link Edwards to Bill Clinton and portray him as out of step with moderates and conservatives.
Faircloth left the statewide political stage after his defeat.
Current U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said Thursday in a news release that Faircloth was a “principled, commonsense conservative.”
“Both Republicans and Democrats came to appreciate him as one of the most skilled political operators North Carolina has ever seen, and he also possessed the ability to make anyone laugh with his sharp sense of humor,” Tillis added.
Duncan McLauchlin Faircloth was born in Salemburg, about 60 miles (97 kilometers) south of Raleigh. He took over the family farm when he was 19 after his father suffered a stroke. Four years later, he started a land-clearing business and expanded into other businesses. He was soon in the middle of big-time Democratic politics, volunteering for the campaigns of Gov. Kerr Scott and later Sanford, who was elected governor in 1960.
Sanford rewarded Faircloth with an appointment to the state Highway Commission, which he chaired later under Gov. Bob Scott. He was Gov. Jim Hunt’s commerce secretary from 1977 to 1983.
Faircloth almost lost his life during his own bid for governor. During an August 1983 gubernatorial campaign trip in western North Carolina, the small plane he traveled in hit water on a grassy runway, crashed through trees and skidded into a river. Faircloth, Crone and two others got out of the plane and swam through burning gasoline to safety before the main fuel tank exploded.
Crone said Thursday that all four of them would have died had Faircloth not willed open the door to the plane. The cabin was quickly filling with smoke and flames.
“At 21 years of age, he taught me many lessons on North Carolina business, history and politics,” Crone wrote online in 2013 about the crash. “But he really taught me the value of living and the understanding of my own mortality.”
Faircloth was putting together his own Senate bid in 1986 when his old friend Sanford entered the race, causing him to stand down. A few years later, he became a Republican, saying the Democratic Party had changed, not him.
He portrayed himself as the taxpayer’s prudent protector.
“For close to 50 years, I’ve been a businessman making a payroll on Fridays,” Faircloth said during his 1998 reelection bid. “I hope 50 years in business will bring a little common sense to Washington.”
But Faircloth’s viewpoints also drew criticism from environmentalists and gun control advocates. He later toned down his partisan rhetoric, but Faircloth had no answer in 1998 for Edwards’ toothy grin, boyish looks and verbal nimbleness as a lawyer. Edwards won by 4 percentage points.
Faircloth, who was divorced, is survived by a daughter, Anne. Funeral arrangements were incomplete late Thursday.
“We’re grateful for Senator Faircloth’s many years of dedicated service to the people of North Carolina and send deepest condolences to his family and friends,” current Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, wrote on X, previously known as Twitter.