Trent Lott’s departure from the US Senate has set off a once in a generation opportunity in Mississippi. We have had only four senators in Mississippi for the last 50 years. Obviously, the stakes are high, and everyone’s moves will be calculated.

First, let’s start with what we know. The departure most likely timed to allow Lott to go to the private sector and make a little money before he “takes it to the house” and retires. That’s completely legit. He has been a public servant since 1972. He’s earned it. He struggled with running in 2006, much like Cochran did more recently, and I have long predicted that Lott would not serve out his term. In fact, I’d be surprised to see Cochran serve his term out. The timing of a late 2007 departure would help Lott make money sooner.

There have been all sorts of rumors swirling around (several we won’t repeat). There have also been some interesting coincidental things happening, including the FBI raid on his brother-in-law, Dickie Scruggs. That makes the tabloid aspect to this all the more juicy.

Now as to the process. Governor Haley Barbour and Eric Clark have stated that the election will be held on 11/4/8, which has State Democratic insiders, pollsters and kingmakers already crying foul. With a very smart election-savvy lawyer like Delbert Hosemann as the incoming Secretary of State, there is not going to be any executive pressure to change that. Though Mississippi Code has some ambiguities around the timing of “notice” of vacating the post, the Governor has some executive prerogative, and appointing an interim successor in advance of an already scheduled general election in November 2008 makes sense. The Governor, over the squeals of Democratic Party Chair Wayne Dowdy, has clearly forced the Democrats, who want a rushed campaign that would withhold scrutiny of their candidates, to bring the fight to him in the form of a lawsuit. With a clearly conservative Mississippi Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Jim Smith, there is not much likelihood of a clear legal victory by the Democrats.

There are three other interesting dynamics. First, the State Democratic Party is having trouble walking and chewing gum at the same time and recently lost seven of eight statewide races. The timing of a Senate run will likely force them to substantially abandon fielding a serious candidate for MS-3rd. They may throw up a “name ID” or self-funding candidate, but this strengthens the position of four announced Republicans in that race for the primary survivor to be the ultimate winner. The second dynamic will be the appointment of an interim Senator. If it is Pickering or Wicker, that will presumably set off a special election for the balance of that term, which is a whole other can of worms. Third, this race will have no primary. Therefore, party loyalty and organization will be key. If either side brings more than one real candidate to the race, they risk losing the seat for their side. I think this clearly gives Republicans an edge as they are much more organized in the current environment.

Candidates with a Shot

Representative Chip Pickering
This interim appointment is undoubtedly seen as Chip’s to turn down. Although he cited family reasons for not running for another congressional term, the US Senate is a whole different ball of wax. In a two year term, Representatives constantly grind and campaign. The US Senate is no cake walk, but it does afford a slightly different lifestyle with regards to campaigning all the time. At the end of the day, we knew Chip was not gone from public service. Odds are that Barbour will extend the offer to Pickering for an interim appointment and that he will accept. That would place him in the catbird’s seat for the general election on 11/4/8.

Representative Roger Wicker
There is no question that Wicker has his eyes on this seat as well and is a strong number two on the list. However, his appointment for an interim seat would set off a scramble for his current MS-1st seat. In NE Mississippi (Speekah Billy Mccoy-land), retention of a Republican is not a gimme, though it is still pretty likely in the current political environment. Conversely, the succession fight for Pickering’s seat is already well in progress and is a safe Republican seat for sure.

Former Attorney General Mike Moore
Mike Moore is clearly the best shot for the Democrats to win. However, he cannot relish an 11 month election cycle where every move he has made (Padnuship, MCI, and stuff we don’t even yet know about) will be under a microscope as he is making some money now. Add to that the legal complications of his best friend and sugar daddy, Dickie Scruggs, and you have the ingredients for him to shy away from the fight . . . again, like he did when Democrats begged him to run against a powerful Haley Barbour. Ultimately, I think he is in the race, and will be a formidable candidate.

Former Governor Ronnie Musgrove
Again, the four year hiaitus from public service combined with a microscope on his personal and private law dealings will complicate a campaign for Musgrove. The Democrat is a tireless campaigner and is certainly a more conservative Democrat than Mike Moore. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t be surprised if he and Moore jumped into the fray.

Former US Rep and Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy
There is some intrigue about a party switching Mike Espy to run, but a US Senate race in Mississippi is not where you cut your newly found Republican roots. As a Democrat, I don’t think he can win. As a Republican, it wouldn’t wash with the Republican base, and Espy would likely alienate both sides in that scenario.

State Treasurer Tate Reeves
As we have said for a long time at Y’allPolitics, Tate’s star is on the rise. With $750K in the bank, he has shown he can raise money and be an effective vote getter. If he chose to run, he’d definitely have a tough hill to climb against at least one sitting Representative-turned-Interim Senator, but he has to be part of the conversation.

The old Chinese proverb that says “May you live in interesting times” must have forseen Mississippi Politics in 2007.

It’s high stakes poker. Strap yourselves in. It’s gonna be a good one.