Jewish World Review August 24, 2001 / 5 Elul, 5761

Jules Witcover

Jules Witcover
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On replacing Helms -- THE news that Republican Jesse Helms of North Carolina will retire after 30 years in the Senate has caused rejoicing in Democratic ranks for more than one reason. The obvious one is that his departure will open a seat that the Democrats might have a fair shot at winning, depending on the GOP candidate. However, if it's native daughter and 2000 presidential candidate Elizabeth Dole, capturing the Helms seat may not be easy.

Helms' retirement, coupled with the decision of Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina to quit after next year, raises Democratic hopes higher of being able to hold onto the Senate control they owe to the GOP defection earlier this year of Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont. Also, the Democrats have only 14 seats to defend in 2002, to 20 by the Republicans.

Another reason for Democratic smiles is that at last one of the Senate's most obstinate, cantankerous competitors will be saying goodbye. Helms has been a pain in various parts of the Democratic anatomy for nearly three decades, blocking ambassadorial appointments and UN payments as the Senate's prime watchdog on how Uncle Sam conducts his business overseas. He hasn't been called "Senator No" for no reason.

Helms, who will be 80 in October, and Thurmond, 98, have been arguments the last few years for age limits. Both have been so handicapped by advancing age and/or debilitating illness as to make their continued service almost a disservice to their constituents, though Helms would argue otherwise.

Other senators, however, have served energetically well past age 80 and their records of achievement make good arguments against any age cutoff. Sen. Theodore Francis Green of Rhode Island (1867-1966), for example, kept going with distinction into his 90s.

There's a certain romance and sentimentality about politicians such as Helms and Thurmond, who have become such institutions in their home states that they get a free pass when good sense should persuade their admiring constituents to call them home for retirement. Those sentiments might well have reelected them had they unwisely chosen to run again.

The retirements of Helms and Thurmond will mark the passing of a group of dig-in-your-heels conservative southerners who once dominated the Senate regardless of party control. When Helms first arrived there in 1973, the Democrats had their own pair in Jim Eastland and John Stennis of Mississippi, a pair of rabid segregationists who seldom made an effort, as both Helms and Thurmond have done in recent years, to indicate they may not have been absolutely right all the time on the issue of race.

Helms has yielded very little, however, as a defender of the right-wing gospel. Just as Democrat Ted Kennedy has become the poster boy for Republican fundraising in the South, Helms has been a similar whipping boy in the North for the Democrats, who have regularly featured "Senator No" in their direct mail drives for campaign money.

Of the Republican Senate seats open in North and South Carolina next year, the Democrats may have the better shot for Helms' spot, even if Liddy Dole goes after it. Since Helms became North Carolina's first Republican senator in the 20th Century, the state has moved more conspicuously out of the conservative past than has its southern neighbor.

Former North Carolina Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt, a two-time loser to Helms in brutal campaigns, has balked up to now about running, but doubtless will be courted anew. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall is in the race and a former House speaker, Dan Blue, the first black to hold that job, is also in the picture.

On the Republican side, former Sen. Lauch Faircloth, defeated for reelection in 1998 by Democratic newcomer John Edwards, already touted as a presidential prospect, may try again, especially if Dole doesn't run. Richard Vinroot, the losing Republican nominee for governor in the last election, and Rep. Richard Burr, are other possibilities.

Without Helms and Thurmond in the Senate, the Democrats will be hard-pressed to find a villain who measures up to this pair in liberal Democratic eyes. Certainly no remaining GOP senator can match either as a polarizing figure. The Democrats may just have to focus more on the Republican House leaders they most love to hate-Dick Armey and Tom DeLay-to find satisfactory targets for their venom.

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