WASHINGTON — What will Thad do? It’s the biggest question in Mississippi politics, heading into the 2014 federal elections.
The state’s senior U.S. senator, Republican Thad Cochran, will turn 76 in December. He has served since January 1979 and is his party’s ranking member on the Agriculture Committee. His seat is up for election next year, but he pointedly has not said whether he’ll seek another six-year term.
“Sen. Cochran hasn’t made a decision about his plans, but continues to work on priorities like passing a new Farm Bill and working on other issues important to Mississippi,” the spokesman for his Senate office, Chris Gallegos, said in response to a recent question from The Associated Press.
Congress was working in Washington this past week, so Cochran didn’t speak at the Neshoba County Fair. The annual gathering in the red clay hills of east central Mississippi includes two days of old-fashioned stump speaking. Even in years like this, with no statewide or federal elections, politicians go there to connect with thousands of potential voters.
While Cochran wasn’t at Neshoba, several of his supporters wandered the fairgrounds wearing “THAD” T-shirts and stickers. On Thursday, the senator’s Twitter account featured an old black-and-white photo of him speaking in Founder’s Square Pavilion, with the message: “Enjoy the Neshoba County Fair, ‘Mississippi’s Giant House Party.'”
Voters can expect a stampede of people to run if Cochran doesn’t. One key will be starting with enough name recognition to raise millions for a campaign.
On the Republican side, the list of potential candidates includes U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper of Pearl, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann of Jackson and state Sen. Chris McDaniel of Ellisville. On the Democratic side, there’s former Gov. Ray Mabus of Madison, who’s now secretary of the Navy, and former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove of Madison, who unsuccessfully challenged Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker in 2008.
Cochran is a former chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and in the past four decades has helped steer billions of federal dollars to Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the nation. The money was for everything from defense contracts and highway construction to Hurricane Katrina recovery projects.
Cochran was born in Pontotoc and his family moved to Byram when he was a child. He now lives in Oxford. He attended the University of Mississippi, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1959 and a law degree in 1965. As an undergraduate, he was an Ole Miss cheerleader.
Cochran served in the Navy from 1959 to 1961, and practiced law in Jackson from 1965 to 1972.
He was elected to the U.S. House in 1972 in a central Mississippi seat that included Jackson. He served three consecutive terms until he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1978, succeeding longtime Democratic Sen. James O. Eastland, who retired. When he was sworn in as senator in January 1979, Cochran became the first Mississippi Republican to hold a statewide office since Reconstruction.
Cochran is viewed as a moderate, although his voting record has a conservative tilt. His appeal has crossed political lines.
In 2010, he worked with two Mississippi colleagues, Republican Sen. Wicker and Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, to name the new FBI building in Jackson the James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and Special Agent Roy K. Moore Federal Building. The name honors three civil rights workers who were killed in Neshoba County in 1964, and the agent who established after the slayings Mississippi’s first FBI field office.
Cochran also crossed party lines in April 2009, urging the Senate to confirm Mabus as Navy secretary.