[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/07/04/art.helms.gi.jpg caption="Jesse Helms was 86."] WASHINGTON (CNN) - Former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican who became an icon to conservatives, died Friday at the age of 86, a senior congressional source told CNN.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, announced on its Web site that he died at 1:18 a.m. Friday after having been ill in recent years.
The center's president, Ed Feulner, hailed Helms as "one of the most consequential figures of the 20th century."
"Along with Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, he helped establish the conservative movement and became a powerful voice for free markets and free people," Feulner wrote.
"The defeat of Soviet communism and the rise of Ronald Reagan would not have happened without his intrepid leadership at decisive times."