Elizabeth Dole

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–A gracious southerner who has successfully blurred the line between a moderate and conservative Republican throughout her long career in public life, Elizabeth Dole does not seem like the next Jesse Helms.

Yet that is what the North Carolina Senate hopeful says she will be if elected to succeed Helms, the five-term firebrand who will retire in January after having championed the conservative movement’s anti-abortion, anti-women’s rights agenda for the past threedecades.

Having spent decades in Washington as a high-profile bureaucrat and senatorial spouse, Dole moved to her native North Carolina last year shortly after she kicked off her Senate campaign. The undisputed frontrunner in the race, she will face six challengers in the Sept. 10 primary. Nine Democrats are vying for their party’s primary nod.

“On most of the issues, I’m right where he is,” Dole said, referring to Helms in a recent interview on CNN.

Helms appears to agree. In a slight to several of her more conservative challengers, he endorsed Dole earlier this year. President Bush has also campaigned on her behalf.

Yet critics say Dole is a moderate in conservative clothing. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a staunchly pro-choice Republican, campaigned with her on the day that she won a coveted endorsement from a powerful anti-abortion political committee. Moderates in Washington are also confident she will not toe the party line if she wins office. Indeed, officials from the Republican Main Street Partnership, a political-action committee devoted to electing moderate Republicans to office, have endorsed her candidacy and contributed the maximum amount of money to her campaign, in the hopes that she will join their group in January.

Pro-Choice Groups Find Dole Too Conservative

While politicos from both parties question whether Dole would in fact carry on Helms’ legacy, women’s groups are taking her at her word. Indeed, the prospect that a disciple of Helms could take office at a time when the Supreme Court supports the current abortion law by a one vote-margin, when a Republican president is poised to appoint the next justice, and when Democrats could lose control of the Senate in November’s midterm elections, they say, is cause for grave concern.

As a result, pro-choice groups are going to great lengths to warn voters not to mistake Dole’s agreeable manner for pragmatic politics and not to associate her ideology with that of her more moderate husband, former Senate Majority Leader and presidential candidate Bob Dole. Instead, they say they will endorse the Democratic nominee–most likely the investment banker and former Clinton administration chief of staff Erskine Bowles–in the midterm elections.

“Everyone is looking at her tone and tenor,” said Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, a political-action committee devoted to electing pro-choice candidates to office. “The bottom line is that her votes will be identical to Jesse Helms’. She might have a different style about her, but she embodies the same views and the same values when it comes to reproductive rights as Jesse Helms.”

Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, echoed that sentiment. Dole, she said, was regarded as pragmatic, and at times moderate, during her service in the Reagan administration as Secretary of Transportation, in the Bush administration as Secretary of Labor, throughout the 1990s as president of the American Red Cross, and even during her 2000 presidential run.

Still, “My sense is that if she says she’s as conservative as Jesse Helms, I don’t doubt it,” Gandy said.

On the other side of the political spectrum, anti-abortion groups are also taking Dole at her word that she is “right in line” with Helms.

“Mrs. Dole has indicated a strong pro-life position,” said Barbara Holt, state president of the North Carolina Right to Life, an anti-choice political-action committee. “We feel that she will follow in the footsteps of Sen. Helms.”

Nonetheless, many are holding out hope that Dole will not be as vocal an opponent of women’s rights as Helms was if, as expected, she wins the Sept. 10 primary and the Nov. 5 general election. They note that Dole supports the right to an abortion in cases of rape and incest and when the life of the woman is at stake–a distinction Helms does not make. And, unlike Helms, Dole also supports the Equal Rights Amendment, her spokeswoman said.

Dole has also indicated that she would be more progressive than Helms has been in the areas of women’s health and domestic violence. In addition, Dole has indicated that she would not necessarily oppose federal funding of international organizations that permit abortion, a stance Helms has taken over the years.

Women’s groups are also encouraged that Dole prides herself on a reputation for building coalitions to reach consensus. Helms, by contrast, has preferred to stand alone on principle rather than hammer out compromises with his colleagues to pass legislation.

“If elected to the Senate from North Carolina, the pro-choice community would expect Mrs. Dole to be approachable about family-planning issues and women’s reproductive rights, something that Jesse Helms was clearly not,” said Jennifer Stockman, head of the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition. Unlike Helms, Stockman added that Dole has no interest in overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

“Realistically,” Stockman said, “Mrs. Dole has never been a pro-choice ally. But we are hopeful that she will be more open-minded to issues important to women.”

Helms’ Legacy Tough to Live Up To

Few indeed could live up to the standard set by Helms. The longtime leader of the conservative movement, Helms began his Senate career in 1973, the same year that the Supreme Court legalized abortion.

He quickly proved his conservative mettle, orchestrating a ban on U.S. funds to international organizations offering abortions during his first year in office. Since then, he has attempted to deny funding to colleges and universities that offer emergency contraception to students. He also worked to prevent the United States from contributing funds to the United Nations Population Fund, which promotes family planning in developing countries.

As the former chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Helms has recently spearheaded efforts to scuttle U.S. ratification of an International Criminal Court, which would address crimes against humanity, including many forms of sexual violence. He has also single-handedly held up floor consideration for several years of a United Nations treaty called the Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, a document widely used by women worldwide to advocate for their rights.

Surprisingly, some anti-abortion advocates agree with their counterparts in the pro-choice community that Dole is playing election-year politics when she compares herself to Helms. They say she is merely paying lip service to the conservative community in an effort to reassure Helms supporters that she will carry on his legacy if she becomes a senator. Indeed, such voters will play a crucial role in the seven-way primary, which promises to draw out the state’s most conservative voters, and in what could become a tough general election this fall.

“We are skeptical, very skeptical, that Dole will carry out the mantle of Jesse Helms,” said Lori Waters, executive director of the Eagle Forum, an anti-choice, anti-women’s rights advocacy group headed by conservative columnist Phyllis Schlafly. “She’s had a history of making some not so conservative statements. Having Jesse Helms as a standard is very hard to live up to. We’re not optimistic that she would be able to meet that standard.”

Allison Stevens covers politics in Washington.

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