GOP's Control of South Is No Sure Bet

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.

Mississippi, 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.

Republican 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.

Republicans 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.

When Sen. 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.

"The 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."

Lott wonders 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.

Mississippi 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 in Mississippi.

When George 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.