The 79-year-old senator made the announcement in an appearance on local television in Raleigh.
“I would be 88 if I ran again in 2002 and was elected and lived to finish a sixth term. And this my family and I have decided unanimously that I should not do. And, ladies and gentlemen, I shall not,” Helms told the audience in his home state of North Carolina.
Helms retirement marks the end of one of the most powerful southern voices in the U.S. Senate.
“No American politician is more controversial, beloved in some quarters and hated in others, than Jesse Helms,” begins the description of the state’s senior senator in the Almanac of American Politics.
As the leading Republican and former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Helms fought for more accountability within the United Nations and battled international agreements he believed hurt U.S. interests like the Panama Canal, nuclear test ban and chemical weapons treaties.
A fervent anti-Communist, he worked to pass the so-called Helms-Burton Act that strengthened the U.S. embargo on Cuba and supported efforts to aid the Contra uprising in Nicaragua in the 1980s.
Analysts point to Helms’ determination on issues of law and order, morality and patriotism as hallmarks of his tenure.
“The point here is Helms has gained strange, new respect not as many conservatives have — by moving left,” wrote Fred Barnes in a Weekly Standard profile. “Helms has earned it the hard way — by not moving at all.”
The senator reiterated that idea in his 1984 reelection campaign against former Democratic Governor Jim Hunt.
“I fight for what I believe,” Helms said. “If you are not willing to stand up for what you believe, your beliefs are not strong enough.”
In North Carolina, pundits and reporters are already debating potential candidates for Helms’ seat including a possible run by former Reagan cabinet member Elizabeth Dole.