Lott Leaves; What's Next for Senate and Mississippi

The rumors that began on political blogs the day after Thanksgiving materialized Monday as Senate Republican Whip Trent Lott (R.-Miss). Announced that he would resign his seat this year to, in his words, “go do something else.”

In an announcement that left jaws agape from the state capitol in Jackson to the nation’s capitol in Washington, the 66-year-old Lott became the sixth Republican senator to say he was leaving office in this election cycle.  Having won his fourth term last year (and then won back his old position as Number Two in the Senate GOP hierarchy) Lott also became the most senior Republican senator to call it quits.  But the Mississippian’s exit is unique in that he is resigning with nearly five years left in his term — a strong sign, Lott-watchers said, that he is going to pursue a career in lobbying and will resign either by the end of the year or at the beginning of ’08 to avoid tough new lobbying regulations that take effect next year.  (One of those regulations that would strongly affect Lott is a two year “cooling off” rule that would bar the Magnolia State senator from lobbying former colleagues for two years after leaving office).

Almost as soon as rumors of Lott’s intentions were confirmed, speculation mounted as to what would happen to his Senate seat and leadership position.  Should he submit his resignation to Republican Gov. Haley Barbour before the end of the year, Mississippi election law would require a “snap election” to fill his seat in 90 days.  Should Lott resign next year, however, there would be a special election in November ’08 to fill the remaining four years of his term.

In either case, Barbour will get to appoint another Republican to the Senate — with state sources agreeing that six-term Rep. Roger Wicker (lifetime American Conservative Union: 92%) is likely to get first refusal rights.  Ken Stribling, who served in the state legislature with Wicker, told me: “The governor would be crazy not to appoint Roger as the interim senator because he’s the strongest candidate in a special election.”  Wicker, cousin of GOP presidential hopeful Fred Thompson and a longtime friend of former Bush deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, has long hinted strongly at a race for higher office.

Although Democrats have not won a Senate race in Mississippi since 1982, they would have a strong contender in Michael Moore, who retired this year as state attorney general.  A favorite of trial lawyers and father of one of the earliest tobacco suits by states, Moore is probably as well-known as Barbour, Lott, or the state’s other Reublican senator, Thad Cochran (who is seeking his sixth term next year).  The question is whether he wants to abandon plans to join a lucrative law practice and go back in politics.

With Lott leaving the Whip’s job, the strong favorite to succeed him in the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference (and Number Three in the Senate leadership), Arizona’s Jon Kyl (lifetime ACU rating:  97%).