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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Jesse Helms, March 8, 1974. Interview A-0124. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Moving from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party

Helms describes his entry into politics. He was a registered Democrat for many years, and while he had lost his faith in the party, he did not leave it until 1970, inspired by Richard Nixon. People urged him to run for Senate, and at last he did so.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Jesse Helms, March 8, 1974. Interview A-0124. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACK BASS:
Senator Helms, basically how did you get active in the Republican party and in politics? You don't have a tradition of being a "politician."
JESSE HELMS:
Well, I've been on the perimeter of politics, I guess, all my life, all my adult life. As you know, I was a Democrat by registration until September of 1970, even though I never voted for a Democrat nominee for president. Never had that experience. I was in Washington two or three years in the early fifties as administrative assistant to two Democratic senators, as you know, and when the conservative faction of the Democratic party prevailed in North Carolina, I did do some work for the party. I did some writing, I wrote speeches for a number of prominent Democrats from time to time, helped in other ways. But the party veered so far to the left nationally, and was taken over by the people whom I'd describe as substantially left of center in North Carolina. And I think I felt, as many other Democrats felt and feel, that really I had no real faith in the party. But I didn't do anything about it. Changing parties, changing party registration, is like moving from a church. But President Nixon's speech at Kansas State, I think it was, persuaded me that maybe the Republican party in North Carolina and in the nation had a chance to restore the two party system. Not merely in terms of electing a president, but in getting a Congress that could be reasonably expected to pull us back to the point of fiscal sanity. And in other matters. So I quietly switched my registration, with no idea at all of ever being a candidate. I thought I would be able to contribute something, perhaps, to this two party system. I'd done a little writing, or other things. And then, as soon as my registration switch had been made public, delegations of citizens - most of them Democrats - started coming to see me, and they wanted me to run for the Senate. And I laughed at them. The idea seemed absurd to me in terms of any real possibility, and in any case, I had a good job which I enjoyed. And I sent them away, with gratitude, of course, for the compliment. But it persisted. And finally, along about the first of January there came a group of people, Republicans and Democrats, with the same story. And they were so persistent that finally I said, "Well, you folks would like for me to run, but you know that I don't have a chance to win the Republican nomination, being in the party just a little over a year." They said, "Well, you're wrong about that. We think that you'd be surprised at the support you'd have if you would just come out." And I said, "Well, I don't agree with you." So as a parting shot, one of them said, "Would you object to our sending out some letters to test what might be the strength that you would have?" I said, "Well, you're going to invalidate what I've said to you, waste your postage and your time, but you can do that if you'd like. Just so long as it does not imply any commitment to run." Well, they sent out, as I recall, about 4,000 letters of the customary type, saying that Jesse might run if you write to him and get three or four of your other friends to write. And maybe send him a dollar or two, on the condition that it be sent back to you if he does not run. Well, I thought that was the end of it, but within about two weeks we had, as I recall, about 15,000 pieces of mail and about $19,000 or $20,000 worth of money. And then I began to look at it seriously, and ultimately I got into it. That's a long answer to your question, but you asked for it.
JACK BASS:
You said initially Democrats came to you, though?
JESSE HELMS:
Oh, yes.
JACK BASS:
Were they interested in you running as a Democrat?
JESSE HELMS:
Oh, yes.
JACK BASS:
In the primary.
JESSE HELMS:
Yes. They came for two reasons. One was an apprehension, which I did not share, that Senator Jordan would be defeated in the primary. Or that he might not survive. Now, that's a delicate thing, and I want you to be careful how you handle that, putting it in the book.
JACK BASS:
Right. Okay. Because of his health situation at that time.
JESSE HELMS:
Yes. I ask you, especially, that you handle this with care, because Senator . . . is still alive. He's in bad shape, but . . . there were many of his friends who were fearful that he could not survive the campaign. Of course, they were proved wrong. Then there were others who were disenchanted with Senator Jordan because they disagreed with him on his handling of the Bobby Baker case and for a variety of reasons. But they wanted some fire insurance in the event that something should happen to Senator Jordan, either defeat or worse, and that Mr. Galifianakis should prove to be the nominee. I didn't think that Mr. Galifianakis would be the nominee. I thought Mr. Jordan would. But they were right and I was wrong.