WASHINGTON — Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, a hard-charging conservative and veteran legislative broker in the Republican-led Congress, said Tuesday he would not seek a fifth term, boosting Democratic hopes of capturing both his seat and the Senate in 2004.
Nickles, who rode into the Senate on Ronald Reagan's coattails at age 31 in 1980, made his announcement beside a bronze statue of the 40th president at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. Though he would have been a heavy favorite for reelection, Nickles, 54, said he did not want to be a Senate "lifer."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 24, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Ronald Reagan -- An article in some editions of the Oct. 8 California section incorrectly stated that Ronald Reagan was the 39th president of the United States. He was the 40th president.
At Tuesday's news conference, he said he would "return to the private sector" after his term ends in January 2005, but he declined to be more specific. Nickles came to the Senate from an executive position at Nickles Machine Corp., a family business in Oklahoma. He and Sen. John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat who also is pondering retirement, have joked about opening up a lobbying shop together.
Unlike many retired senators, Nickles has plenty of time for another career or two. Although he outranks 81 of the 100 senators in seniority, Nickles is younger than 75 of them.
Nickles made his name in Congress as a tenacious advocate of lowering taxes, shrinking government and backing social conservative causes. President Bush praised him Tuesday for his "efforts to keep government spending in check and to keep more money in the pockets of American taxpayers. He has left his mark on virtually every major issue that has moved through the Senate."
Nickles rose to become the second-ranking Senate Republican, preferring the term "assistant majority leader" to the more traditional "majority whip" -- a reflection of his ambition to lead the Senate.
But he never broke through to the top. In December, Nickles became the first Senate Republican to urge his colleagues to reconsider Trent Lott as majority leader after the Mississippi senator sparked a racial furor with comments made at Sen. Strom Thurmond's birthday party.
His colleagues took his advice but passed over Nickles as a replacement for Lott in favor of Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee. While Nickles had beaten Frist handily in a three-mile footrace in 2002 (22 minutes, 54 seconds to Frist's 27 minutes, 18 seconds, according to Congressional Quarterly), in the race for majority leader he was a step slower in one key respect: Frist was the White House favorite for the job.
Nickles then became chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. This year, he shepherded a budget bill through Congress that cleared the way for enactment of a $350-billion, 10-year tax cut, the second-largest in Bush's presidency. He has used his position to scold lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike, who seek to increase government spending.
For business leaders, Nickles has been a stalwart. In 2001, he led a successful charge to kill ergonomics rules that the Clinton administration wrote to force companies to take detailed steps to prevent workplace injuries. Nickles has championed a market-driven approach to health care, and is a key negotiator on Medicare and patients' rights legislation.
Nickles' retirement gives Democrats an opening in a state where they scored a surprising gubernatorial victory last year. Rep. Brad Carson and state Atty. Gen. Drew Edmondson are considered possible contenders for the party's nomination.
On the Republican side, Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. and Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys are likely to seek the nomination. Former Rep. J. C. Watts Jr. and former Gov. Frank Keating are considered unlikely to run.
While Oklahoma has leaned toward the Republicans in recent national elections and is seen as safe for Bush next year, Democrats have deep roots: They control both houses of the state Legislature, and Gov. Brad Henry is also expected to help the party's Senate nominee.
"This is now a much more competitive race for Democrats," said Jennifer Duffy, an independent Washington political analyst. "Oklahoma is sort of viewed as solid Republican turf. That's not quite the way it is."
The tightening Oklahoma race could prove critical in the battle for the Senate. Republicans now hold 51 seats, narrowly leading 48 Democrats and one Democratic-leaning independent. Democrats can retake the Senate by picking up two seats, or just one if they also win the White House. In an evenly divided Senate, the party that holds the vice presidency would break ties and control the chamber.
Nickles is the second Republican senator this year to announce his intended retirement. The first was Sen. Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois, where Democrats also hope to score a gain.
Among Democrats, Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina, Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina and Zell Miller of Georgia have announced they will not seek reelection. Sen. Bob Graham, who just dropped out of the Democratic presidential race, has not yet decided whether to run for a fourth term. All of those southern states are considered fertile ground for Republican challengers.