(CNSNews.com) - The firestorm of liberal rage that scorched Sen. Trent Lott's political career nearly two weeks ago also has ignited criticism of at least four Republicans regarded as successors to the Senate Majority Leader.
But some observers say a "weakened" and "responsive" Lott is more valuable to Democrats than any GOP replacement would be.
People for the American Way (PFAW) issued a report Tuesday comparing the civil rights voting records of Republican senators Bill Frist (Tenn.), Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Don Nickles (Okla.), and Rick Santorum (Pa.) to that of Trent Lott. PFAW selected the four GOP senators because they are seen as the most likely contenders for Lott's leadership position in the event he steps down or is voted out when Senate Republicans meet to decide his fate on January 6.
The PFAW report found that the potential GOP replacements' voting records were "very similar" to Lott's. That's not a positive accomplishment, according to Ralph Neas, president of the liberal advocacy group.
The PFAW scorecard lists 16 "key" civil rights votes over the past 20 years, where Frist, McConnell, Nickles and Santorum parted company with liberals. Included among those historic Senate votes was the 2002 confirmation of Judge Dennis Shedd of South Carolina to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; 2001 confirmation of John Ashcroft to attorney general; 2000 Hate Crimes Expansion Act; 1991 confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court; and 1983 vote for a Martin Luther King Holiday.
"These dismal voting records make it clear that the Republican Party's civil rights problem is far broader and deeper than Trent Lott," Neas said. "Whether or not Lott steps down or is ousted from his leadership post, the question for Senate Republican leaders is whether they will continue to support efforts that undermine civil rights protections or will they make a sharp departure from the policies they have been advocating until now."
Frist, widely regarded as the most moderate of the four Republican contenders for Lott's post, is considered too conservative by the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). His close relationship with Bush political advisor Karl Rove has led to speculation that he is the administration's pick to succeed Lott.
But the NAACP's civil rights scorecard shows that Frist's civil rights voting record is only a few percentage points more favorable than Lott's. The NAACP reported that Frist voted favorably with the group's liberal agenda only 15 percent of the time compared with 12 percent for Lott.
"We'd rather see someone much more moderate [than Frist]," said Hillary Shelton, chief lobbyist for the NAACP in a recent interview with The Tennessean, Frist's home-state newspaper. "We want someone who's been consistently supportive of a pro-civil rights agenda.
However, the Rev. Jesse Jackson indicated to Fox News's Greta Van Sustern that he might be willing to give Lott a second chance, after seeing him apologize to black America on BET (Black Entertainment Television) Monday night.
According to Jackson, "Lott could use his sense of contrition and redeem himself politically ... He could make a great contribution to his nation and his party."
Jackson said the litmus test for Lott's ability to keep his leadership position will depend on his ability to change his voting patterns regarding President Bush's judicial nominees. According to Jackson, Lott must stop supporting "anti-civil rights" judicial nominees such as Judge Charles Pickering, and he needs to convince his fellow Republicans to follow his lead.
"Obviously, that's not going to happen because there's a strong difference of opinion about that very controversial subject [of nominations]," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "One party represents one side of the opinion; the other party represents the other side of the opinion. That's not going to change."
However, Sabato said Jackson and his fellow civil rights activists are probably hoping that Lott will remain Senate majority leader, because that might serve their interests in the long run.
"They want him in, but very weakened and responsive to their agenda which he endorsed, almost completely, the other night on BET," Sabato said. "I think they know that Lott is not going to resign his Senate seat."
Sabato even suggested that Republicans might spite those civil rights groups by voting to oust Lott when they meet in January.
"They can keep Lott, and Lott will be constantly under pressure to accede to a liberal civil rights agenda," Sabato said. "If the Republicans replace Lott, the new majority leader will be quickly tarred with his voting record as seen through the prism of liberal civil rights leaders."
Regardless of Senate Republicans' efforts to divert negative attention away from Lott and back to their agenda, Sabato expressed a dismal outlook.
"Thanks to Trent Lott, the Republicans are very much on the defense on all of these issues," Sabato said. "No matter what they do, they will not win."