Former Senator Jesse Helms dead at 86

July 4, 2008 7:51:04 AM PDT
Former five-term Republican U.S. Senator Jesse Helms has died at 86. Helms was born in Monroe, NC where his father, called "Big Jesse," served as chief of police. Jesse and Dot Helms are the parents of three children: Jane, Nancy of Raleigh, and Charles Helms of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. They have seven grandchildren.

Helms never obtained a university degree. He attended Wingate Junior College (now Wingate University) and Wake Forest University but did not graduate. He held honorary degrees from some universities including Bob Jones University, Grove City College, Campbell University, and Wingate University.

In 1972, Helms announced his candidacy for a seat in the United States Senate. He won the Republican primary with 60.1 percent of the vote and eliminated two intraparty opponents.

In 1978, Helms successfully defended his seat against state Insurance Commissioner John Ingram in a low-turnout, off-year election. Helms received 619,151 votes (54.5 percent) to Ingram's 516,663 (45.5 percent). Ingram carried the strong support of President Jimmy Carter. The 1978 election would give Helms his largest margin of victory in his five Senate campaigns.

In 1984, in the most expensive Senate campaign up to that time, Helms narrowly defeated powerful two-term Governor Jim Hunt, thanks in part to then-President Ronald Reagan's support and popularity in North Carolina. Helms polled 1,156,768 (51.7 percent) to Hunt's 1,070,488 (47.8 percent). Although this was a solid victory against a formidable opponent, it should be noted that President Reagan carried the state with 62 percent of the vote, and GOP gubernatorial candidate James G. Martin won with 54 percent.

In both 1990 and 1996, Helms won against Harvey Gantt, the former mayor of Charlotte. Both campaigns attracted major national attention not only because of Helms' national prominence and controversial positions on many issues, but also because Gantt was an African-American whose liberal political views provided a stark contrast to Helms. Helms' 1990 victory has been partially credited to a late-running television commercial that urged white voters to reject Gantt because of the Democratic candidate's support for affirmative action programs.

In 1996, Helms drew 1,345,833 (52.6 percent) to Gantt's 1,173,875 (45.9 percent). Helms supported his former Senate colleague Bob Dole for president, while Gantt endorsed Bill Clinton.

Although Helms is generally credited with being the most successful Republican politician in North Carolina history, his largest proportion of the vote in any of his five elections was 54.5 percent.

In North Carolina Helms was a polarizing figure, and he freely admitted that many people in the state strongly disliked him: "They (the Democrats) could nominate Mortimer Snerd and he'd automatically get 45 percent of the vote." Helms was particularly popular among older, conservative constituents and was considered one of the last "Old South" politicians to have served in the Senate. However, he also considered himself a voice of conservative youth, whom he hailed in the dedication of his autobiography. He is widely credited with helping to move North Carolina from a one-party state dominated by the Democratic Party into a competitive two-party state that usually votes Republican in presidential elections. Under Helms' banner, many conservative Democrats in eastern North Carolina switched parties and began to vote increasingly Republican.

Because of recurring health problems, including bone disorders, prostate cancer and heart disease, Helms did not seek re-election in 2002. His Senate seat was won by Elizabeth Dole, wife of long-time colleague and former Senator Bob Dole. Helms remains to date the longest-serving popularly-elected U.S. senator in North Carolina history.

Helms died July 4. The exact cause of his dead is unknown at this time.

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