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Washington Post The Fix blogger Chris Cillizza analyzes the Lott departure and what’s next in the Senate.

Monday, November 26, 2007

HH: Joined now by the always ring-ting-tingling Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post, where I read every day, and you should, his The Fix, the online blog of politics and all sorts of other stuff. Chris, Happy Thanksgiving to you, I hope it went well.

CC: Thank you, sir. I was in California. It went very well.

HH: Of course you did then. Did you have a turducken?

CC: (laughing) I did not.

HH: Oh.

CC: Just the regular stuffing and turkey.

HH: You’ve got to go to and get yourself a turducken, Chris.

CC: I would like a turducken. You know, my in-laws are all Southern, so a turducken is not unfamiliar to me.

HH: I had my first turducken yesterday. It was really quite a treat. And so we’ve been pushing turduckens everywhere. But I’m not going to give you one. I’m just going to ask for your opinion. Trent Lott’s gone. Who’s going to be the next Senator from Mississippi?

CC: Man, right on the spot. I think it is probably going to be Roger Wicker, who most people have never heard of.

HH: I have never heard of him.

CC: He’s a Congressman from the 1st District, elected in ’94, former staffer of Lott’s. You know, I think he’s sort of the last man standing in this. Haley Barbour, the governor who would be an obvious choice, has said he isn’t interested. He said that today. Chip Pickering, son of Judge Charles Pickering, and a Congressman who has expressed interest multiple times in running statewide and being in the Senate, is apparently on the outs with the state party, and in particular, Governor Barbour, or he simply won’t pick him, for whatever reason, I’m told.

HH: Why is that? I read that in your column.

CC: I don’t know the answer to that, because if you asked me six months ago, or if you even asked me yesterday, if Trent Lott resigned tomorrow, who would be the choice, I would have said Chip Pickering. This is someone who has long been seen as sort of an acolyte and an heir to Lott’s political legacy. I honestly don’t know, Hugh. I mean, that’s one of the things I’m trying to report on, is figure out why that is. Now Pickering did announce earlier this year that he was going to retire from his 3rd District House seat. He’s got five boys, I think between ages of 17 and 4. He wanted to go home to Mississippi. Maybe it’s that. You know, I’m always skeptical, to be honest, about family concerns, because I think it’s used often to couch other things. But if you take him at his word, maybe it’s that. I don’t have another reason to suggest. And so the last guy standing at the moment is Roger Wicker, who you know, is a very reliable Republican, he’s got a base in the state, and I think he may wind up being the guy, although I think this landscape is shifting a lot. You know, I don’t think a lot of people knew that Lott was even considering this. I think he only told Governor Barbour last night. And so I think we’re going to see the plates move around a little bit more before everything gets settled over the next couple of days.

HH: Now Chris Cillizza, Washington’s a very small town, and you folks at the Washington Post hear a lot of things that we don’t. What is your take on why Lott is doing this? I mean, he didn’t have to go through an arduous reelect last time. I’m glad he did, because he kept the seat in Republican hands in a tough year, makes it easier to get in presidential year, it’s much easier to defend that seat than it would have been last year. But what’s the speculation? What’s the dope?

CC: Well, Hugh, as you know, I remember in the run-up to the 2006 election, to be honest, when the 2006 election cycle started, the first name on most retirement lists was Trent Lott.

HH: Right.

CC: I mean, he had just sort of recovered from the Strom Thurmond birthday, and most people assumed he was done with Congress. Well not only is he not done with Congress, he gets elected into leadership, which I assumed meant he is not advanced in age, he is not someone who has health problems, his children are grown. There isn’t an obvious reason there, and it seemed like if you were going to do it, 2006, when he was up for reelection, would have been, you know, was the obvious time to do it. Resigning less than two years into your next term does not seem an obvious time. But again, and this may just be the newness of the announcement, we don’t know why. He said fatigue, and that he wanted to head home, and he just felt like this was the right time in his life, maybe. But why wasn’t it at the right time in his life in November, 2006? I do think your broader point is right, though. Assuming that this special election to fill Lott’s last four years happens in November, 2008, which is something of a matter of debate, but I think is the likely outcome, and assuming Hillary Clinton is the Democratic presidential nominee, that is a big help for whoever winds up being the Republican appointee to this seat. Bush carried, the President carried the state with 59% of the vote in 2004. I would assume with Hillary opposite whoever the nominee is, you’re going to see a repeat of that. So in a presidential year, the dynamics of Mississippi favor Republicans no matter who Democrats wind up nominating.

HH: Right. Now I do want to talk a little bit about the Senate leadership. If you go back to Bill Frist, and before him, Trent Lott, process Republicans, not really conservative warriors. Now you have Mitch McConnell and Jon Kyl, and I think it’s going to be Jon Kyl as the new Whip, don’t you?

CC: Well, you know, if you believe that people are sick, that people want those rock-ribbed Republicans, then yes, because I think the other names that I’ve heard, though, I’m more focused on the campaign, not the leadership angle. But the other name that I’ve heard a lot of is Lamar Alexander. He would probably not fit that mold. So Kyl has certainly been a good member of leadership, Republican Conference Chair, et cetera, et cetera. So he would seem like an obvious choice. You never know. The secret ballots of Senate leadership…

HH: Yeah, they are wild, aren’t they?

CC: One of the most fascinating things you can possibly imagine. I remember in 2006, I thought, and I think almost everybody else thought, that Norm Coleman was going to be elected the next head of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee.

HH: And don’t you know that they wish they had (laughing).

CC: And Elizabeth Dole comes out as the winner, and it just reminded me yet again how little I really know.

HH: Well, I will say this, though, I like Lamar Alexander a lot. I gave him a lot of money, as much as I could in 1996, and helped raise money for him. I think he’s a great and grand guy, but Republicans in the base are looking for conservatives at this point. And I’m just wondering, do you hear anything about what would happen if a perceived moderate, and Lamar Alexander’s a conservative, but he’s not a movement conservative in the way Jon Kyl is. Any reaction you would anticipate on the presidential campaign by this, if they went with other than Kyl?

CC: I don’t think so. I mean, I never underestimate the presidential candidates on either side to take advantage of political opportunities, so I don’t want to rule it out. But I don’t think so. I mean, to be honest, while I care probably a little too much about these party leadership battles, and who’s going to be the next, you know, who’s going to replace who, and all the succession stuff, I think most people who follow the presidential race at a distance, who are just starting to dial in now, don’t care whether it’s Jon Kyl or Lamar Alexander, or the man from the Moon. They probably don’t even know those last two people I just said are in the Senate. So I think it’s unlikely to be a big issue. That said, and you know this better than I do, Hugh, is I do still think Republican primary voters are looking for a real conservative in the presidential race, and I’m not sure that they’ve found one. Is it Mike Huckabee in Iowa? Is it somebody…

HH: Did you read Novak today?

CC: I don’t know.

HH: Did you read the Novak column today?

CC: I did.

HH: It’s not Mike Huckabee (laughing).

CC: It’s not Mike Huckabee (laughing).

HH: Chris Cillizza, always a pleasure from the

End of interview.

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