A Lott of GOP Farewells

Republican exodus bodes ill for 2008 election prospects

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Trent Lott in Pascagoula, Miss., after his announcement.

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When Sen. Minority Whip Trent Lott of Mississippi made his surprising announcement last week that he would retire in December, he became the sixth Republican this year to declare a Senate exit, further adding to the woes facing the Grand Old Party.

While it's unlikely a Democrat could easily win Lott's Senate seat, the uncertainty of that race—and the blow to Republican morale by the loss of yet another member of the old guard—complicates an already bleak election outlook for the party. In addition to the departures of Lott and Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel, Pete Domenici, John Warner, Larry Craig, and Wayne Allard, 17 Republican House incumbents are also retiring—several in competitive districts. This means at least seven House seats and three Senate seats that would have most likely stayed in GOP hands will be up for grabs in 2008. "Republicans were holding on for dear life before Lott resigned," says Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the Cook Political Report. "They will lose seats."

The Republican Party has other problems as well. The Democratic campaign committees, which focus on fundraising for House and Senate races, have a huge dollar-for-dollar lead, more than 2 to 1 over the Senate Republican campaign committee and about 14 to 1 over the House Republican committee. With so many open seats, Republicans will have to divert their already meager funds into more races. This has Duffy predicting that in 2008, Democrats will gain three to six seats in the Senate, where they now effectively hold a 51-to-49 majority.

Cash and controversy. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, will soon name someone to temporarily replace Lott and wants to hold a special election for the seat in November 2008. But Democrats in Mississippi are threatening legal action if a special election is not held within 100 days, which they say is required by law. Democrats prefer a short election race now, while they hold the cash advantage.

Lott's vacancy has led to a flurry of internecine campaigning before this week's scheduled election to fill top Republican leadership positions. Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona hopes to move up from his conference chair slot into Lott's whip seat. The potential opening of Kyl's post has led to a three-way race between Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, and Richard Burr of North Carolina. Whatever the outcome of those contests, the GOP shuffle promises to be great political theater.