RALEIGH, N.C. — Sen. Jesse Helms, the former newspaper editor and TV commentator who has been one of the most fiercely conservative voices on Capitol Hill for three decades, has decided not to run for re-election next year, sources said Tuesday.
The five-term Republican will announce the plans Wednesday night on Raleigh TV station WRAL, where he made his reputation during the 1960s with his editorials condemning communists and civil rights marchers, said two sources who spoke with staffers in Helms’ office. The sources spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Helms, 79, was first elected to the Senate in 1972. In recent years, he has suffered a variety of health problems, including prostate cancer, and since knee surgery in 1998 has used a motorized scooter to get around Congress. Two GOP sources said Helms’ staff members have begun telling senior Republicans, including advisers to President Bush, that Helms would not seek another term.
Eddie Woodhouse, a Helms aide in Raleigh, refused to say what the televised remarks would involve. WRAL general manager Bill Peterson confirmed Helms asked for airtime but said he did not know any details.
Helms’ wife, Dorothy, brushed aside reports that her husband was retiring. “They are just speculating,” she said.
His departure could complicate GOP hopes of reclaiming the narrowly divided Senate. Democrats seized control by one vote earlier this year when Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont left the GOP to become an independent. Another senior Republican, 98-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, has said he will not seek re-election next year.
Helms’ retirement could open the way for failed presidential candidate Elizabeth Dole to seek the GOP nomination for the seat. She was born and raised in North Carolina, though she spends most of her time in Washington.
The GOP is defending 20 Senate seats in 2002, including Thurmond’s. Democrats are defending 14, none of them open. Helms has been active in North Carolina politics since he worked to elect segregationist Willis Smith to the Senate in 1950. He was a conservative Democrat before switching parties in 1970, and was elected to the Senate two years later in the GOP sweep led by Richard Nixon.
During his 29 years in the Senate, Helms has opposed abortion and advocated school prayer. His propensity for going his own way earned him the nickname “Senator No.”
A staunch opponent of communist regimes and critic of foreign aid, he has exerted a major influence in foreign affairs, serving as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1995 until this year.
He frustrated President Clinton by holding up the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and was a primary author of a law restricting the ability of American companies to do business with Cuba. He also was a leading force in withholding U.S. dues to the United Nations.
Although he has mellowed in recent years, Helms considers himself a family values stalwart and has often condemned what he called gay lifestyles. He is generally considered unsympathetic to civil rights and the use of tax dollars to subsidize what he considers indecent art.
He can also be charming, with a genteel Southern manner. He ended up on good terms with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright toward the end of the Clinton administration, though he often disagreed vehemently with her on the issues.
He even endeared himself to Bono, lead singer of the Irish rock band U2, who invited the bemused grandfather to one of his concerts.
At home, Helms was embraced by Republicans and conservative Democrats in rural North Carolina who became known as “Jessecrats.” Still, in a state whose voters are mostly Democrats, he never won a landslide; his biggest win, in 1978, came with 55 percent of the vote.
Poor health hasn’t dulled Helms’ appetite for a good fight, even with a Republican president. This summer, Helms stalled the appointments of some Treasury Department officials in an attempt to push Bush to help out the troubled textile industry.
“He hasn’t changed over the years in the sense that he was committed to what he believed in and has an underlying philosophy to what he believed in,” former state GOP chairman Jack Hawke said Tuesday.
AP White House correspondent Ron Fournier contributed to this report.