A Democratic Senator from Mississippi?

If Trent Lott retires, Bob Novak says the GOP could lose his seat.

Published December 26, 2005 6:16PM (EST)

When Democrats dream of the Senate seats they might take in 2006, they think of Pennsylvania or Ohio or even Montana. But Mississippi? Even given Howard Dean's 50-state strategy, Trent Lott's home seems, at least at first glance, to be stained safely crimson for the foreseeable future.

But according to Bob Novak, Republicans are really worried about their hold on the state, which is seen as crucial to maintaining GOP control of the Senate. Trent Lott, it seems, is considering retiring. If he does, Novak writes, prominent Republicans "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."

Lott, the former Senate majority leader, was forced to step down from his leadership post in 2002 due to the controversy that flared after he said America would have been better off had it elected segregationist Strom Thurmond when he ran for president in 1948. The White House had Lott replaced with the malleable, acquiescent Bill Frist, further consolidating Bush's power. Novak -- who defends Lott's praise for Thurmond's campaign as a "harmless jocular remark" -- notes that "Lott's recently published memoir ('Herding Cats') reveals he was deeply hurt by Bush's non-support."

Now Lott is having a sort of revenge, forcing the Republican establishment to beg him to stay. According to Novak, "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."

If he does, Mike Moore is apparently a favorite to win. He's a "better known, more appealing figure in the state than Republican Pickering," Novak writes. Furthermore, the state's African-American population is growing, and "the performance by the Republican-controlled national government in coping with Katrina is no asset for Republican candidates in Mississippi."

The stakes go beyond 2006. "For the longer range," writes Novak, "Lott's retirement and replacement could signal that Southern political realignment has peaked and now is receding."

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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