Trent Lott's Surprising Resignation

Trent Lott’s abrupt decision to resign from the Senate is baffling, but — unlike some of the other G.O.P. retirement announcements this year — it won’t offer Democrats a chance to bolster their majority.

His maneuver actually maximizes the odds, which are strong in the first place, of his party holding onto the seat. By quitting now, Lott allows Haley Barbour, Mississippi’s Republican Governor and the former G.O.P. national chairman, to choose an interim successor — presumably Chip Pickering, a 44-year-old congressman who has eyed Lott’s seat for years and who earlier this year declined to seek a seventh term in 2008 (presumably figuring Lott would be sticking around for a while).

Pickering is the son of Judge Charles Pickering, whose nomination for a 5th Circuit Court of Appeals judgeship was thwarted earlier this decade by Senate Democrats. Pickering, boosted by his quasi-incumbency, would then run in a special election next November to fill the final four years of Lott’s term. He would be heavily favored, with the ’08 presidential election swelling turnout of casual voters in what is already one of the strongest G.O.P. states at the presidential and congressional levels.

The Democratic bench in Mississippi, as you might expect, is thin. When openings like this occur, the name of former Attorney General Mike Moore, whose landmark lawsuit against Big Tobacco won him fame and even made him a character in the 1999 Michael Mann/Al Pacino film “The Insider,” is invariably mentioned. But Moore, who was elected A.G. four times before retiring in 2004, typically resists. Also expect John Arthur Eaves, the Democrat who challenged Barbour in this year’s gubernatorial race, to be talked up. Eaves ran an unconventional (for a Democrat) campaign, preaching a message of social conservatism and religious fundamentalism, but still lost soundly.

As for the 65-year-old Lott, his move — which apparently is not related to health — is a head-scratcher. Flushed from the G.O.P. leadership in 2002, he seemed likely to retire when his seat came up in 2006. Instead, he held a suspenseful press conference two Januarys ago at which he declared his candidacy for re-election and seemed to re-dedicate himself to the Senate. He won some redemption after the ’06 election, when his stealth campaign to return to the G.O.P. leadership paid off with an upset, one-vote victory over Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander for Minority Whip, the No. 2 Republican leadership slot.

Lott only secured his victory when several Republicans who had committed to Alexander inexplicably changed their mind at the last minute. The balloting process in highly secretive, so now conspiracy theorists may wonder: Did Lott put out the word that he only wanted the slot for redemption — and that he’d step aside, clearing the way for Alexander, after a year? In the clubby world of the Senate, where many still consider Lott a victim for the way he was forced from the leadership in 2002, such an argument might have been very persuasive.