The news comes as a surprise for many seeing that the four-term Republican from Mississippi struggled with the decision to run for re-election in 2006. Lott won big and re-entered the ranks of Republican leadership as Senate minority whip, proving he had recovered politically from a 2002 statement that was perceived to be racist. In a 100th birthday greeting for Sen. Strom Thurmond, he suggested that the country would be better off had the then segregationist been elected president in 1948.
As a result of his comments, Lott was pushed out and replaced by Sen. Bill Frist, who had less racial baggage and was an ally of President Bush. The move was seen as a statement that the Republican Party would not stand racial intolerance.
Lott has since recovered politically, and his departure is seen as a blow to a party already in the minority. While the GOP is recruiting heavily for potential House members, senators keep on dropping, with Lott being the sixth to announce his retirement.
But does Lott's departure spell blue in the special election for his Mississippi seat next year? Not so fast, says John Bruce, an associate professor of political science at the University of Mississippi.
"If I was a betting person, I wouldn't make that bet," Bruce says. While the Democrats have a lot of money to work with, Bruce says the Republicans still have a deeper bench in the heavily GOP state. To fill the vacancy until an election, Republican Gov. Haley Barbour will pick a short-term successor. Already several names for a replacement are being thrown around, including Rep. Chip Pickering, a Republican who announced he would retire from the House after this term.
GOP Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona said he will run to take Lott's place as minority whip.