Boundless Ambition

While voters are focused on the presidential race, there's another election a few years away that deserves notice, too. It's the campaign to succeed Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who has pledged to retire from the Senate at the end of 2006. And while it may seem early to think about this next contest, six senators are already reportedly in the running.

The list, according to Roll Call, includes former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who criticized Senate leaders on the floor this month for not passing legislation more quickly and for virtually guaranteeing a lame-duck session in November. But Lott stands almost no chance of getting his old job back. While he may have understood the legislative process better than Frist does, Senate Republicans aren't anxious to return him to their most powerful position. That's not because of Lott's racially insensitive remarks, mind you, but because many conservatives believe he compromised too often with Democratic leader Tom Daschle.

Another candidate is Chuck Hagel, a moderate who supported Senator John McCain over George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential primaries. That alone will be enough to bar him from the number-one spot. George Allen's candidacy depends in part on how well Senate Republicans do in this fall's election, since he's chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. That leaves three other contenders: Jon Kyl, Mitch McConnell, and Rick Santorum, all of whom are among the Senate's most conservative members.

Each of these men holds a Senate leadership position now, but Santorum is especially well placed to move up to Frist's spot. Santorum, the youngest of the three at 46, reflects a caucus that's become increasingly conservative and unwilling to compromise in recent years. He also stopped by the House on his way to the Senate, a common career path these days. He has to give up his post as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference in 2006, the same year he's running for reelection. What better campaign theme than to say he can give Pennsylvania more pull in Washington, D.C.?

As Franklin and Marshall College public affairs professor G. Terry Madonna, who has followed Santorum's career closely, told me, Santorum has “boundless ambition” and “doesn't perceive himself to be a back-bencher.” Madonna added, “He perceives the world in black and white and is very forceful about his agenda.”

That's sometimes gotten Santorum into trouble, such as when he compared gay sex to bigamy, incest, and adultery last year. But Republicans don't appear particularly bothered by that; indeed, Santorum has pushed for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Santorum is unapologetic about his views, which include opposing each of the following: background checks at gun shows, the continuation of the COPS program, and increasing tax deductions for college tuition.

In case you're wondering if Santorum is too extreme for his caucus, think again. He's liked by many of his colleagues and he could pull support from moderates thanks to Arlen Specter, whose Senate career Santorum helped save this year by backing Specter in the Republican primary. Santorum's views are also in line with that of the administration. In 2003, he supported Bush on 99 percent of votes, according to Project Vote Smart.

The one good thing about a Santorum Senate is that it might force Democrats to take the gloves off. Even though Frist plays dirty -- the reverse filibuster last year on judicial nominees, barring Democrats from conference committees, campaigning against Daschle on his home turf -- it can be hard to go after a doctor who helps accident victims on a Florida highway and talks a lot about the plight of AIDS victims in Africa. At least with Santorum, there shouldn't be any confusion about what he's really about or any reticence by Democrats in going after him. As Madonna noted, Democrats can be just as unwilling to bend as Republicans.

Of course, a lot could change between now and the fall of 2006. Frist could choose not to retire. Republicans could become the minority party in the Senate, making his successor's role slightly less important. Santorum could run for the position and lose.

Or Santorum could set his sights on an even higher office. Madonna said a Santorum presidential candidacy is a real possibility “under the right circumstances.” So while the 2004 election is just weeks away, it's not too soon to start worrying about 2006 and beyond.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill. Her column on Capitol Hill politics runs each week.