December 26, 2005
WASHINGTON -- Trent Lott within the next week plans to decide
between seeking a fourth term in the U.S. Senate from Mississippi
or retiring from public life. That could determine whether Republicans
keep control of the Senate in next year's elections. For the longer
range, Lott's retirement and replacement could signal that Southern
political realignment has peaked and now is receding.
one of the reddest of the red Republican states, has not even
been on the game board of the Washington analysis forecasting
the 2006 Senate outcome. But in Mississippi, prominent Republicans
are worried sick. They believe Lott will probably retire. If so,
they expect the new senator will be a Democrat, former State Attorney
General Mike Moore. Republican politicians in Mississippi believe
Rep. Chip Pickering, the likely Republican nominee if Lott does
not run, cannot defeat Moore.
National Chairman Ken Mehlman pleaded with Lott last week to run
again. The senator was as blunt with this emissary from President
Bush as he was with me. "Where is our vision and our agenda?"
he asked. The malaise afflicting the Bush administration not only
threatens a Senate seat in Mississippi but impacts Lott's decision
whether to retire.
A Bush entreaty
now to Lott is ironic. Lott was driven out of the Senate majority
leader's chair after the 2002 elections when the president refused
to defend him from calumnies that a harmless jocular remark on
the late Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday was racist in nature.
Lott's recently published memoir ("Herding Cats") reveals
he was deeply hurt by Bush's non-support.
pressing Lott to run say that if he retires, he will have to live
the rest of his life under the burden of giving the Democrats
a Senate seat and perhaps control of the Senate out of personal
pique that he no longer was majority leader. But Lott has not
been sulking in his tents for three years. He has been an active
presence on the Senate floor and has made the most of his meager
power base as Senate Rules Committee chairman.
Kay Bailey Hutchison last week urged Lott to stay, he reminded
her she too had pondered before deciding to run again in Texas
next year. He said a six-year Senate term poses a major undertaking,
adding that he considered not running for his third term in 2000
when he was still majority leader. His personal financial condition
has deteriorated since then with the loss of half his net worth
when Hurricane Katrina swept away his home at Pascagoula, Miss.
hurricane is what has made this decision difficult for me,"
Lott told me. On the one hand, "the performance by the administration
has been poor and the Congress has not been a lot better."
On the other hand, "my people need all the help I can give
them." Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has pointed to Lott's
role in guiding the Katrina tax relief package through the Senate,
declaring: "This shows why Mississippi and the country need
Trent Lott to be re-elected next year."
what his senatorial role would be beginning his fourth term at
age 65 without a leadership position or significant committee
chairmanship. Sen. John McCain has urged Lott to return as leader
of Senate Republicans (succeeding Sen. Bill Frist, who is leaving
the Senate). But that would require an aggressive campaign against
Majority Whip Mitch McConnell that Lott is not inclined to pursue.
Republicans are so anxious about a Lott-less election next year
partly because Democrat Moore is a better known, more appealing
figure in the state than Republican Pickering. The state's big
African-American minority continues to increase, and politically
potent trial lawyers will be unrestrained on behalf of Moore.
Finally, the performance by the Republican-controlled national
government in coping with Katrina is no asset for Republican candidates
W. stood aside while Trent Lott was tossed out, I wrote on Dec.
23, 2002, that the secret liberal theme behind his defenestration
was that "the GOP's Southern base, the bedrock of its national
election victories, is an illegitimate legacy from racist Dixiecrats."
Now, three years later, that bedrock may be eroding.
2005 Creators Syndicate