Trent Lott: Reading the Tea Leaves
Recent comments by Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott (R) have reinvigorated talk that he will leave the Senate in 2006, opening up another potential target for Democrats already predicting gains in the midterm elections.
In a recent interview with the Biloxi Sun Herald, Lott said from "a personal standpoint, I need a little more income." He continued, "The people I care most about, those on the Coast, are hurting and need help." As can be the case with the Mississippi senator, Lott seemingly contradicted himself in the next sentence: "There's been the implication that I can do more here for them than somebody else but the truth is somebody else could do just as good." (Excerpts from Lott's Q&A are here.)
That last statement seems to indicate that Lott is leaning against a fourth term, but recent history has shown that predicting the next step in the Mississippian's political career is a fool's errand.
After being deposed as Senate majority leader in 2002 following impolitic remarks made at a birthday celebration for the late South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, most political observers put long odds on the likelihood of Lott running for reelection. But in the intervening years, Lott has reemerged as a player within the Republican conference and has even begun to discuss the possibility of running for his old position again after current Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) retires in 2006.
Should Lott run for reelection, he wins. But if he decides to retire after 34 years in Washington (18 in the Senate, 16 in the House), the open seat will draw the attention of both national parties.
On its face, the state tilts strongly toward Republicans. President Bush carried it with 59 percent of the vote in 2004, and GOP lawmakers make up two-thirds of the congressional delegation. Democrats counter that with a black population of 36 percent, Mississippi is in play in an open-seat scenario.
There is little mystery among Republicans about their potential nominee. Third District Rep. Chip Pickering (R), a onetime staffer for Lott, is considered the heir apparent. The image of Pickering as a senator-in-waiting was bolstered in 2003 when he turned down a lucrative offer to head the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association.
Asked about Pickering's interest in an open Senate seat, spokesman Brian Perry said only that his boss hopes Lott and Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) "remain in Washington for a long time."
The Democratic side is significantly more complicated. The preferred candidate is former state Attorney General Mike Moore, who has been the golden child of Mississippi Democratic politics for the better part of a decade. Moore became a household name in the Magnolia State (and nationally) in the mid-1990s when he led a massive legal assault on the tobacco industry, an effort that resulted in a settlement totalling billions dollars for the states involved.
Both Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) have spoken to Moore about a possible bid in recent weeks, according to informed Democratic sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the conversations publicly. Moore, who is now a private practice attorney, did not return a call seeking comment.
Sam Hall, communications director at the Mississippi Democratic Party, said that "if Moore decides to run, which he is being heavily encouraged to, we have a very good shot."
Moore remains undecided on the race, and has shown a penchant for flirting with major races before backing away. In 1999, he was in the race for governor but dropped out to seek reelection as AG, ceding the field to Ronnie Musgrove, who eventually won the office.
If Moore chooses not to run, Democrats' chances diminish somewhat. The other Democrats mentioned are Musgrove, former Gov. Ray Mabus and state Supreme Court Justice James Graves Jr.
One potential candidate who will not run is former Rep. Mike Espy (D). Espy, who served as Agriculture Secretary during President Clinton's first term until a scandal prompted his resignation, took himself out of consideration in a conversation Monday, saying he is focusing all his energies on the congressional campaign of his nephew, Henry "Chuck" Espy (D). Chuck Espy is seeking to unseat Rep. Bennie Thompson (D) in the state's 2nd District. Mike Espy said that given his involvement in his that race it would be "impossible for me to run for anything."
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