Nickles Announces His Retirement

Posted October 7, 2003 at 1:39pm

Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) ended months of speculation about his political future Tuesday, announcing that he will not seek re-election in 2004.

Approaching his 24th year in the Senate, the Budget Committee chairman said he didn’t want to become a “lifer” in the chamber.

“I’ve always intended to return to the private sector,” Nickles said in announcing his retirement at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.

The 54-year-old is the fifth Senator, and second Republican, to announce that they will retire after next year’s elections.

Republicans hold a two-seat majority in the chamber, and Nickles’ announcement sets up a competitive race to succeed him. While Oklahoma has been reliable Republican territory in national elections — voting 60 percent to elect George W. Bush president in 2000 — Sooner State voters elected a Democratic governor last year.

“Oklahoma’s in play,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse. “We’re sober to the fact that Oklahoma will be a challenge to us, but we feel that Oklahoma will be a challenge that we can meet.”

Three would-be candidates have been diligently preparing for the possibility of an open-seat contest.

On the Democratic side, Rep. Brad Carson is viewed as all but in the Senate race, now that Nickles is out.

Carson is likely to announce the formation of an exploratory campaign committee within the next week, according to a knowledgeable Democratic source. In September, he hired the chief fundraiser for Sen. Max Baucus’ (D-Mont.) 2002 re-election bid in an effort to begin beefing up his campaign operation.

“Our intentions are to run,” the source said.

“Today we should be focused on Senator Nickles and his career,” Carson said in a statement. “I will devote a lot of time over the coming days to prayer and thought on which direction I will be called to public service for our state.”

State Attorney General Drew Edmondson has also been mentioned as a possible candidate, but party leaders are likely to coalesce behind Carson in order to prevent an intraparty battle.

Woodhouse said Carson and Edmondson would both be formidable, but he added, “We’d certainly like to think we could avoid a primary.”

A GOP poll released earlier this month showed Edmondson leading Carson 42 percent to 36 percent in a hypothetical matchup.

The survey, conducted by Cole Hargrave Snodgrass & Associates, the leading Republican political firm in Oklahoma, also found that Edmondson had much higher name recognition in the state.

Edmondson has been attorney general for nine years and is also a political legacy. His father, Ed Edmondson, served in the House from 1952 to 1972 and his uncle, Howard, held a Senate seat.

Carson, 36, was elected to his eastern Oklahoma House district in 2000, although he is seen as the fastest rising star in Sooner State Democratic circles.

Meanwhile, Republicans also appear more likely headed toward a primary battle for the Senate nomination, although party leaders vowed that they will be able to hold the seat regardless. Rep. Ernest Istook and Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys have both publicly expressed interest in running if Nickles retired. Former Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) is also mentioned as a potential contender.

While former Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), who left the House in 2002, had been encouraged to look at the Senate race, he ruled out a bid Tuesday.

“When I chose to step down from my Congressional duties in 2002, I embarked on an exciting new journey in my life,” Watts said in a statement. “This journey has me in a direction that neither my family nor I am prepared to change at this time.”

Watts also said that he would do anything he could to help the Republican nominee.

“While we will miss Don and his leadership, we are confident that his Senate seat will stay in Republican hands,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.) said in a statement. “Last year, our record of defending our open seats in Southern states like North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas proves we know how to hold them. We will continue to build on that Southern track record next year.”

In a statement, Istook praised Nickles’ service and said now is not the time “to rush out with political announcements.”

Still, a spokeswoman for the Congressman said his interest in the race remains unchanged.

“He will be talking to Oklahomans in the coming weeks and getting their feedback,” said Micah Swafford.

A poll commissioned by Istook and conducted at the end of August showed him with a 42 percent to 17 percent edge over Humphreys.

According to sources, Humphreys is expected to resign his position as mayor to focus on his Senate bid, which he could make official within the week. He is close to Watts, Nickles and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), and Humphreys’ backers believe he will have much of the state GOP establishment behind him.

Nickles’ decision to forgo a fifth term will end a 24-year career that spanned four presidents and began in 1980 when he was elected to the Senate at 31. He rose to become the Senate Majority Whip in 1996, the GOP’s second highest-ranking post, which he was forced to step down from last year because of Republican Conference terms limits.

Nickles won re-election in 1998 with 66 percent of the vote, becoming the first Sooner State Republican ever elected to a fourth Senate term. At the start of the 108th Congress he assumed the chairmanship of the Budget panel, when Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) shifted over to head the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

A prodigious fundraiser for his colleagues, Nickles considered running for the top Senate Republican position in 1996 when Majority Leader Robert Dole (Kan.) retired to focus his energy on his White House campaign. But Nickles decided against running for the top position and allowed then-Majority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to ascend to the post. Nickles was then elected by his colleagues to be Majority Whip but never ruled out running for Majority Leader, a fact that strained his relationship with Lott.

While he never directly challenged Lott, Nickles did play a major role in forcing the Mississippian to resign his post late last year after Lott made comments alleging to support Sen. Strom Thurmond’s (R-S.C.) 1948 segregationist presidential platform.

“Trent has been weakened to the point that may jeopardize his ability to enact our agenda and speak to all Americans,” Nickles told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Dec. 15, 2002. “There are several outstanding Senators who are more capable of effective leadership and I hope we can have an opportunity to choose.” Five days later, after fighting to save his job, Lott quit and Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) was quickly chosen to replace the fallen leader.

In a statement, Frist praised Nickles for never compromising his conservative principles.

“As one of my trusted advisers, I will miss his thoughtful and experienced counsel,” Frist said. “As a friend and jogging partner I will miss his companionship. He served the people of Oklahoma and our country well.”

While Nickles promoted a brand of conservatism that appealed to many people in his party, a senior GOP Senate aide suggested the Oklahoman’s legacy would continue to live on, long after he exits the chamber.

“It is tough choice and a tough decision,” the aide said. “But the lessons he has taught and the Members he has worked with over the decades will ensure that while he will be missed the things he believes in will continue to be at the forefront of our conference agenda.”

Inhofe likened Nickles’ retirement to the loss of a family member.

“We have been fortunate to have such a strong leader and while Oklahoma may have lost one of its leaders, I have lost my brother,” Inhofe said in a statement.