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Lott Keeping His ‘Options Open’

More than 18 months after his fall from leadership, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) continues to be one of the most prolific fundraisers on Capitol Hill, collecting the second-largest haul of cash for his PAC so far in the 108th Congress.

Lott’s leadership political action committee has brought in a shade less than $3 million since he was ousted as Republican leader at the end of the 107th Congress, a hearty sum that represents more cash than Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) or House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) raised for their PACs.

The only lawmaker to reel in more donations is the man who helped push Lott out of leadership, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), whose PAC raised almost $3.6 million in the first 18 months of the 2004 election cycle, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Why is Lott maintaining such a full-throttle political operation? “Because I’m here, because I want to help good candidates,” Lott said Wednesday.

Despite his ouster, Lott said he wants to remain a politically active force and realizes that will lead to some speculation about his next steps — specifically, whether he now wants to run for re-election in 2006 and whether he would ever consider another run at a leadership position.

While many GOP Senators, aides and strategists privately are betting he’ll retire — Lott raised just $17,335 last quarter for his re-election committee — the Mississippi Republican remains intentionally coy about his future.

“I’m always trying to keep my options open,” he said. “A lot of it would depend upon what happens this year in the elections.”

Regardless of his ultimate intentions, Lott expects to continue playing a role in the Senate, not just as elder statesman and behind-the-scenes wheeler-dealer, but also as a political tactician.

He held a fundraiser last week and one this week for his New Republican Majority Fund PAC, and three more are on the schedule for September, Lott said.

One of his first calls Wednesday morning was to offer some words of encouragement to Herman Cain, the African-American who came in second place in the Georgia Republican Senate primary. Cain, a pizza magnate who cast himself as an outsider businessman, was given generally positive reviews among Republicans but was not able to keep Rep. Johnny Isakson (R) from winning the nomination without facing a runoff.

Lott liked Cain early on in the race but also knew Isakson and Rep. Mac Collins (R), who came in third in the primary, and gave all three men $5,000 from the New Republican Majority Fund.

Lott still runs his PAC in a more unconventional manner than other lawmakers, using costly direct-mail pitches which serve as both fundraising overtures and attempts to rally the base with heated rhetoric.

Higher overhead means that Lott has nowhere near as much money on hand to distribute to candidates. DeLay, for example, has given $813,000 to other Congressional candidates and national and state party committees. That’s more than many Fortune 500 company PACs have given to candidates — GM, for example, has given less than $600,000 to candidates and committees so far this cycle.

Frist, the leading donor in the Senate, has handed out $556,000 in contributions from his PAC, while Hastert has given $540,000.

Lott, on the other hand, has given just $163,500 to Congressional candidates and party committees.

But the former leader continues to have a base of support among small-dollar donors, which is surprising in some regards, considering how quickly he fell from grace in December 2002 after his remarks at Sen. Strom Thurmond’s (R-S.C.) 100th birthday party.

Two-thirds of the $3 million Lott raised for the New Republican Majority Fund in the past 18 months came from donations of less than $200, most of which comes through direct mail, according to FEC reports.

Lott said he has one of the best donor lists in Washington and added that he could quickly have his re-election committee purchase that list and round up the necessary cash for a re-election effort in 2006 if he so desired.

As of June 30, the Trent Lott for Mississippi campaign committee had $851,000 in the bank.

After the battering he took in the national media over his jokes about supporting Thurmond’s segregationist 1948 presidential bid, many of his colleagues widely assumed that Lott would spend the next four years trying to rehabilitate his image and then retire at the end of his term.

By mid-2003 Lott was prominently engaged in the chamber’s legislative fights, with Frist relying on him at times to broker deals with colleagues who knew Lott far better than they did Frist. Lott has continued in that role this year and is now helping craft internal GOP rules changes that would give Frist more power, as well as leading the charge to round up enough support to overturn Democratic filibusters of judicial nominees.

Currently serving as Rules and Administration Committee chairman, Lott said that post would not be enough to entice him into running for re-election. Instead, Lott indicated that a decision to stick around would most likely be guided by how long it would take him to become chairman of the Finance or Commerce, Science and Transportation committees.

“Odds are I’ll end up being chairman of Finance or Commerce, depends on the years,” he said.

But Lott, 62, could have to wait another eight years or more before taking the gavel at either panel, leaving open the question of whether he could ever see himself taking a run at another leadership post.

Frist has no intention of running for re-election in 2006, which will likely set off a chain reaction of contests for GOP leader, Whip and on down the leadership line.

One veteran Republican Senator, who requested anonymity, said Lott is well enough liked within the Conference to win a race for some lower-level post, but only if his colleagues felt that their votes for Lott wouldn’t be interpreted as somehow endorsing racist views.

“The question is, would the media allow him to recoup his image?” the Senator said.

Lott, who has made a habit of trying to keep people guessing about his intentions, gave a broad smile at the suggestion that he might make another run at any leadership position.

“I’m always looking at my options,” he said.