Former cabinet secretary Elizabeth Dole had an unusual start to her campaign for U.S. Senate. At the urging of the George W. Bush administration, Dole was running to replace five-term U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, who was retiring at the end of his term in 2002.
It was a beautiful Tuesday morning for the “Dole for U.S. Senate” kick-off.
The announcement was planned for her hometown of Salisbury. The weather was clear and comfortable, even for mid-September.
Then the first plane hit.
The announcement was quickly canceled.
Dole would file to run for the U.S. Senate weeks later, with no public event. The terrorist attacks changed everything.
Although Dole had not lived regularly in North Carolina since 1959 and had been a resident of the Washington, D.C. area for most of the time since the mid-1960s, the state and national Republican establishment quickly cleared the field for her. She handily won the Republican primary with 80% of the vote. Helms recorded radio ads to attract eastern North Carolina “Jessecrats” to the Dole Camp.
Bob Dole hit the N.C. campaign trail for his wife in the summer of 2002, and he never left her side. Bob Dole, a World War II hero who survived devasting wounds to serve decades in the Senate, died last week. He was 98. The 1996 GOP nominee for president and two-time U.S. Senate majority leader, Bob Dole remained popular in North Carolina, and he wanted to help Elizabeth any way he could. Bob Dole took the role of supportive spouse seriously, never overshadowing his wife.
Dole’s tour through North Carolina on behalf of his wife was the first time he’d campaigned since his loss to President Clinton in the 1996 race for the White House. He went to some of the most rural parts of the state, visiting fire stations in Avery County, courthouses, and soda fountains in Marion, Lexington, and Hickory.
At 79 then, Dole posed for hundreds of photos, visited veterans hospitals, and diners. Large crowds gathered for his stories and famous one-liners.
“I kidded her that when she gets way, way ahead it might be safe to bring me down,” said Bob Dole.
Her election marked the first time a married couple was elected to the Senate from different states.
Bob Dole would continue to be a close confident throughout her time in the U.S. Senate. In 2008, Bob Dole, then in his mid-80s, was back on the campaign trail. In August of that year, he spoke at the opening of John McCain’s N.C. campaign headquarters.
“I’ve seen hundreds of senators come and go in both parties,” Dole said. “I’ve seen good senators and I know how they work. You have a show horse and a workhorse. Elizabeth is in the workhorse category.”
Bob was at Elizabeth’s side throughout her failed 2008 campaign, which saw a huge Obama-inspired Democrat wave in North Carolina. An election that saw Obama capture North Carolina for the Democrats in the presidential race for the first time in 32 years, saw State Sen. Kay Hagan defeat Sen. Elizabeth Dole, Bev Perdue defeat Republican Mayor Pat McCrory for governor, and generally saw Democrats trounce Republicans in North Carolina.
In defeat, Bob was the loving spouse. Supportive and caring. Dole is said to have taken his wife’s loss as hard as any political defeat he experienced.
In 2019 the Doles made an appearance on the “Today” show, looking back on more than 43 years together.
“I love his compassionate heart,” she told Savannah Guthrie. “And the fact that he loved to feel that each day he could make a difference for at least one person in need. And I loved the fact that he had such a great sense of humor.”
“You need to focus on your partner’s interest, not your own, but what she or he may be doing or may have done that you can talk about,” Bob said.
In December of 2002, after the election, Sen.-Elect Elizabeth Dole walked out of a day-long orientation for newly elected senators and spoke briefly with a throng of reporters. After she finished her parting words drew laughs, “I am going to go home and see what Bob Dole made me for dinner.”
Bob Dole passed away on December 5, 2021, the day before what would have been their wedding anniversary.