WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - South Carolina's Democratic Sen. Ernest F. "Fritz" Hollings announced his plans yesterday to retire from the seat he has held since 1966, raising Republican hopes for broadening their majority in the South and the Senate.
Hollings, 81, is the second veteran Democratic senator from the South to announce plans to retire. Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, who often votes with Republicans, said in January that he would not seek re-election in 2004.
Republicans, who hold 51 of 100 Senate seats, were encouraged by the news of another open seat in the South, where the GOP has been gaining strength.
Democrats acknowledged that their support in the South could be weak in the next election. At least two other Southern Senate seats are in question because Democratic presidential contenders - Sen. Bob Graham of Florida and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina-have yet to announce whether they will run again for the Senate in 2004.
Sen. George F. Allen of Virginia, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Democrats "are now left in the unenviable position of having to defend two open seats in the South - fertile territory for Senate Republicans."
Four South Carolina Republicans - U.S. Rep. James W. DeMint, former state Attorney General Charlie Condon, Myrtle Beach Mayor Mark McBride and developer Thomas Ravenel - have tossed their hats into the ring and are busy raising money and organizing their campaigns.
But "without Fritz Hollings, the Democrats are starting from scratch, which makes this a great opportunity for Republicans," Allen said.
Democrats are trying to recruit Inez Tenenbaum, South Carolina's state superintendent of education, to run. Columbia Mayor Bob Coble has indicated he is interested.
Democrats vowed to retain the seat. "I'm confident that South Carolina will be eager to fill Fritz's seat with someone who shares his values, commitment and ideals," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
But Republicans have reason for optimism. As South Carolina's economy has grown over the past decade, voters have increasingly cast ballots for Republicans. President Bush received 57 percent of the vote in 2000, and Hollings won his last two re-election bids by only narrow margins.
Despite being elected seven times to the Senate, Hollings was the state's junior senator until the late Sen. Strom Thurmond retired last year. That made Hollings the longest-serving junior senator in history.
A staunch fiscal conservative, Hollings served on the Senate Budget Committee longer than anyone else. In 1985, he co-sponsored the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings bill, which led to lower deficits.
Yesterday, his colleagues said they would miss his spark.
"His wit and humor have livened up the most mundane of debates, but when he spoke, he always spoke loudest for those he represented in South Carolina," said Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.