What Would a Post-Helms Senate Look Like?

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For 30 years, Jesse Helms has tormented liberals in the Senate. Now the buzz is getting louder in Washington and his home state of North Carolina that the 79-year-old ultraconservative will soon announce his plans to retire when his fifth term ends next year.

The buzz, interestingly enough, is coming primarily from Republicans who say all the signs point to Helms stepping down. His wife and children want him to retire; he suffers from a host of ailments, including the peripheral neuropathy that's forced him to navigate Capitol Hill in an electric scooter; he's already scaled back his activity on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a perch he masterfully used over the years to make life miserable for both Democratic and Republican secretaries of state. And after the first six months of this year, he had only about $263,000 in his campaign war chest — a paltry sum when you consider that he spent $14.6 million on his 1996 campaign and $17.8 million on his 1990 race.

Of course, Jesse may surprise everyone. He loves to defy conventional wisdom. "Senator No," as he's nicknamed in Washington, is proudest of the nominations he's single handedly held up and the votes he's cast as the chamber's lone conservative dissenter. His current campaign finances aren't an accurate predictor of his political future; if Helms seeks a sixth term, the cash will pour in from devoted conservatives all over the country faster than you can say "North Carolina barbecue." Helms could announce he's running again just to spite Ted Kennedy, The New York Times and The Raleigh News and Observer — all three of which he holds in equal contempt for their liberal views.

If Helms does bow out, Elizabeth Dole has been spreading the word in Washington and North Carolina that she'd be interested in running for his seat. A former cabinet secretary and president of the American Red Cross, Dole, 65, was reared in Salisbury, North Carolina and visits her mother there regularly. Bob Dole, former Senate Republican leader and 1996 presidential candidate, has told his wife he'd love to return to the Senate as a spouse.

Liddy Dole ran a lousy campaign for president in 2000, but in North Carolina she'd be the candidate to beat. The Republicans who might challenge her in a primary are a motley collection of congressmen, wealthy unknowns, or candidates who've lost previous statewide elections. The Democrats have so far offered up only second-string candidates as well. Their three best hopes for taking the seat — former Gov. Jim Hunt, former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles, and Congressman Robert Etheridge — have all said they won't run. Democrats also don't believe they'd get much mileage out of the fact that Dole currently lives at the Watergate complex in Washington, not North Carolina. In addition to her regular visits with Mom, Dole has been a frequent speaker at state Republican Party conventions and has campaigned regularly for GOP candidates there. "She's considered a North Carolinian who's been on duty in Washington for a long time," says Bill Cobey, chair of the North Carolina Republican Party.

The Democrats don't plan to go belly up in the race, however. During the past two decades, Republicans have reached political parity in what was once a Democrat-dominated state. But Democrats still run strong in key pockets around the state and have managed to get moderates elected, including John Edwards, North Carolina's other senator, who's often mentioned as a presidential candidate in 2004. And though the carpetbagger charge won't stick, Democrats believe the fact the Dole hasn't served on so much as a city council in North Carolina will resonate. "She's really never held an elective office," says Barbara K. Allen, who chairs the North Carolina Democratic Party. "You've got to be better than just being great on TV."

But Republicans in Washington dearly hope Liddy Dole would have the charm to hold a seat they can't afford to lose. The GOP, of course, wants to take back the Senate, which it lost last May when Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords defected to the Democrats. But that may become an uphill battle: The numbers in the 2002 election seem to favor the Democrats putting some padding on their one-vote lead in the Senate. Twenty seats now held by Republicans are up for grabs, while the Democrats have only 14 seats at stake.

Republicans are praying that 98-year-old Strom Thurmond hangs on until his term ends next year, when South Carolina Congressman Lindsey Graham, who's said he'll run for Thurmond's seat, stands a good chance of keeping it in the GOP column. If Thurmond leaves before his termís up, South Carolina's Democratic governor would almost surely name someone from his party to fill the vacancy, giving Democrats a leg up in that race. What's more, Republican senators tell me at least three other GOP incumbents — Fred Thompson of Tennessee, Pete Domenici of New Mexico, and Phil Gramm of Texas — are considering leaving when their terms are up in 2002 because they're fed up with the chamber and realize their party won't recapture it for a while.

Don't believe the rumors, say other GOP operatives. Yes, Thompson, who has only $544,000 in his campaign bank, hasn't yet announced whether he'll seek reelection. But Gramm and Domenici insist they're not bowing out. Gramm has $4.4 million on hand. Domenici, who has about $1.9 million, had George Bush in his state last week for a fundraiser. Republicans also say the overall numbers aren't as bleak as they first appear. They have more seats up for grabs, but Democrats are seriously challenging no more than three of them, GOP officials claim. Republicans, meanwhile, are mounting serious challenges on as many as 10 Democratic seats. Helms's seat is one the GOP thinks it'll hold — whether it's Liddy or Jesse who eventually sits in it.