THANKS A LOTT….When incumbent senators are gearing up for re-election, they usually spend the year before the race building up a campaign war chest. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) is up in 2006, but he raised an underwhelming $26,690 in the third quarter of 2005, a tiny fraction compared to the totals of his similarly situated colleagues. It seemed to be a strong hint about the embattled senator’s future plans.

Or was it? Not long after Lott’s anemic fundraising prompted a series of rumors about his retirement, Lott told reporters that he may not only return to the Senate, but he’s also likely try to replace Bill Frist as Senate Majority Leader (unless the Dems regain the majority, of course).

According to Bob Novak, the mystery surrounding Lott’s future is causing all manner of GOP consternation.

Trent Lott within the next week plans to decide between seeking a fourth term in the U.S. Senate from Mississippi or retiring from public life. That could determine whether Republicans keep control of the Senate in next year’s elections. For the longer range, Lott’s retirement and replacement could signal that Southern political realignment has peaked and now is receding. […]

Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman pleaded with Lott last week to run again. The senator was as blunt with this emissary from President Bush as he was with me. “Where is our vision and our agenda?” he asked. The malaise afflicting the Bush administration not only threatens a Senate seat in Mississippi but impacts Lott’s decision whether to retire.

There are a number of angles to this, each of which offer a compelling narrative for 2006.

* Lott’s hurt feelings — Lott is still bitter about the way in which his party threw him overboard in 2002. With his GOP colleagues desperate for him to run for re-election, he’ll milk this for all it’s worth.

* The Democratic field — If Lott does retire, Dems have a surprisingly strong bench in Mississippi, including former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, Rep. Gene Taylor, former Rep. Mike Espy, and the likely frontrunner, former state Attorney General Mike Moore.

* The South — In 2004, Republicans gained Senate seats thanks, in part, to the fact that five popular, incumbent, Democratic Southern senators all retired at the same time — and all were replaced by a Republican. And yet, 13 months later, GOP leaders seem to believe that a Dem would replace Lott next year in a state Bush won by 20 points.

* K Street — Lott lost a home to Hurricane Katrina and has never been one of the chamber’s independently-wealthy members. This may be Lott’s best chance to do what so many of his colleagues have already done — leave the Senate for an incredibly lucrative gig as a DC lobbyist.

* The White House — The days in which a call from the White House could dictate a candidate’s plans are over. Karl Rove’s vision for the party notwithstanding, there’s not much the Bush gang can do to affect Lott’s future.

* Let’s make a deal — Might Republicans be so worried about Lott’s seat that they would offer him the Majority Leader slot if he agreed to stay? What would Mitch McConnell say?

Lott hasn’t exactly been a quiet backbencher since the White House helped orchestrate Bill Frist’s ascension three years ago. Lott famously told Time magazine, “I am sending the signal that they’re going to have to deal with me, and they need to keep that in mind, because I can be a problem.” In at least this sense, he’s kept his word.

To be sure, Lott hasn’t exactly become the Linc Chafee of the South, but he hasn’t been a reliable team player either, including stiffing the National Republican Senatorial Committee, balking at Bush’s first-term request for a dividend tax cut, and even calling for Karl Rove’s resignation after Scooter Libby was indicted.

So, what’s his next move? Only Lott knows for sure, but watching this play out should be awfully entertaining. Pass the popcorn.

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.