July 4, 2008— -- Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, an ideological firebrand with a reputation as one of the Senate's most conservative lawmakers, died early this morning of natural causes in Raleigh. He was 86.
Helms was first elected to the Senate in 1972. He served five terms, the longest-serving Republican ever from North Carolina.
Called "Senator No" by some, Helms consistently argued against the United Nations, communism, government spending, welfare, arms control and foreign aid. He was pro-military, and often derisive on topics and people he opposed, including Martin Luther King Jr. and homosexuality.
Of the "Senator No" moniker, Helms said: "In 1978 the Raleigh News & Observer dubbed me 'Senator No.' It wasn't meant as a compliment, but I certainly took it as one."
In a statement released late this morning, Sen. Mitch McConnel of Kentucky, the Senate's minority leader and its ranking Republican, praised his former colleague as "a leading voice and courageous champion for the many causes he believed in."
"We mourn his passing and extend our deepest sympathies to the extended Helms family," McConnell said.
White House deputy press secretary Scott Stanzel said the country lost "a great public servant and a true patriot today."
The White House is expected to release a statement from President Bush later today.
Railing against the reach of government was a favorite cause for Helms, except when it came to moral issues. In those cases, Helms believed government deserved to be a player.
"Big government cannot and will not solve the multitude of problems confronting our nation ... because big government is the problem," he told the North Carolina General Assembly in 1997.
Helms appealed to conservative, mostly white, rural North Carolinians. Throughout his service in public office, he maintained close ties to the religious right and made several appearances on the shows of televangelists Jim Baker and Pat Robertson.
In 1982, Helms fell short of pushing through measures that would have stripped the Supreme Court's jurisdiction on cases involving abortion, school prayer and school busing. He voted often to outlaw or restrict abortion rights and eliminate the use of busing for school integration. He also tried to do away with food stamps.
In 1989, Helms became embroiled in a national debate on homoerotic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, and Andres Serrano's photograph of a crucifix in a glass of urine. Both were on display at an exhibit funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Helms tried, without success, to get Congress to pass a bill that banned federal funding for "obscene" art.
In 1990, Helms narrowly won an election against Harvey Gantt, a black Democrat and former mayor of Charlotte. A week before the election, Helms ran a television ad dubbed "White hands," which some derided as racist and others attributed to his victory in the race. The ad implies that Gantt's support of affirmative action policies was costing white voters their jobs.
"The paramount thing is whether a man believes in the principles of America and whether he is willing to stand up for them, win or lose," Helms once said.
Jesse Helms was born Oct. 18, 1921, in Monroe, N.C. He went to public schools and attended Wake Forest College before quitting to work briefly as a newspaper and radio journalist. In 1942, he entered the U.S. Navy and served during World War II.
After the war, Helms returned to radio work, held a directorship with the North Carolina Bankers Association and then returned back to radio. In the 1960s, he developed a reputation as an outspoken critic of what he believed was unfair coverage of the South, particularly concerning the struggle for civil rights.
He used his position with the radio station as a forum to air his views on national and international issues. He became an outspoken critic of federal policies, including welfare, and often denounced judicial decisions in which he considered the punishment not suitable enough for the crime.
In 1972, Helms ran for the Senate and won by a large margin. He quickly established himself as one of the party's more solid conservatives and continued to win re-election.
He did not enjoy widespread support in Congress, in part because of his tendency to overstep boundaries when speaking out on a subject. He was widely derided in 1994 when he called President Clinton an "incompetent commander" of the nation's armed forces. He also suggested that because of a disgruntled electorate, the president might need a bodyguard with him on visits to North Carolina.
Yet Helms managed to have an impact in U.S. foreign affairs, largely through his six-year chairmanship in the 1990s of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Helms opposed most internationalist efforts.
"Senator Helms not only speaks for the tens of millions of Americans who don't trust the foreign-policy establishment, he also opens the door to a true national consensus behind important foreign-policy goals," Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in The New York Times.
As a staunch anti-Communist and opponent of Cuban President Fidel Castro, Helms sponsored the Helms-Burton Act in 1996, which extended the U.S. embargo of Cuba.
Helms also served on the Senate Agriculture Committee and on the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.
Helms did not seek re-election in 2002, citing multiple health problems, including bouts with heart disease and prostate cancer.
Helms married the former Dorothy Jane Coble. They had three children and seven grandchildren.
ABC News' Russell Goldman contributed to this report.