WASHINGTON — Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi will seek a seventh term in 2014, setting up a Republican primary that pits an established incumbent who has brought billions of dollars to his home state against a tea party-backed challenger who says federal spending is out of control.
Cochran, who turns 76 on Saturday, has been in the Senate since 1978. He’s the top GOP lawmaker on the Agriculture Committee and a senior member of the Appropriations panel.
His chief of staff, Bruce Evans, said Friday that Cochran will seek re-election, ending months of speculation about the senator’s plans.
A tea party-backed candidate, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, announced in October that he’d seek the seat, regardless of what Cochran does.
Political scientist Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, said that Cochran, by bringing big federal dollars to one of the poorest state in the nation, has built a strong base that crosses lines of party, race and geography.
“I have always thought of him as being the most unbeatable politician in Mississippi,” Wiseman said of Cochran.
Many Republicans and Democrats also believe Cochran would be difficult to defeat.
Republicans need to gain six seats in the Senate to regain control after the 2014 elections. Democrats would welcome a polarizing Republican primary in Mississippi because it could help the party compete in a state that has long backed Republicans in federal elections. The last Democrat to win a U.S. Senate election in the state was John Stennis, who served more than 50 years before choosing not to seek re-election in 1988.
With his election to the Senate in 1978, Cochran became the first Republican since Reconstruction to win a statewide office in Mississippi.
Cochran is a past chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, bringing billions of federal dollars to the state for military bases, universities, local schools, highways and a wide variety of other projects. The spending has made Cochran many friends and brought sharp criticism from people who see it all as pork.
Cochran has a home in Oxford. He was an Ole Miss cheerleader in the 1960s and is an attorney, piano player and state history aficionado. He’s such a fixture in Mississippi politics that he’s recognizable by his first name.
Cochran has had to break a sweat only once being elected to the Senate: It was during his first re-election campaign in 1984, when he defeated former Democratic Gov. William Winter. Since then, Cochran has easily defeated challengers.
Conservative and tea party groups such as the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund have rallied behind McDaniel, pressuring Cochran to retire. Conservatives have criticized Cochran’s support of spending bills, Mississippi projects and his willingness to work with Democrats on some issues. Cochran was the first Republican, for example, to back former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel to be defense secretary.
The Senate Conservatives Action, the super PAC arm of a group founded by former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, has been airing television ads in Mississippi introducing voters to McDaniel and presenting him as an outsider who would curb the federal debt.
Cochran is holding nearly $804,000 in campaign cash. He had raised only about $48,000 from July through the end of September, sparking speculation among some that he planned to retire.
REACTION TO COCHRAN’S ANNOUNCEMENT
Reaction to Cochran’s decision to seek re-election
JACKSON, Mississippi — Reaction to the decision by U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., to seek a seventh term in 2014:
Mississippi Democratic Party chairman Rickey Cole said Friday that he doesn’t know how many Democrats might enter the Senate race: “It depends on more factors than I can even name right now.”
Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, a Republican, had said he would run for Senate if Cochran didn’t. With Cochran seeking re-election, Hosemann said Friday that he won’t enter the 2014 race: “Obviously, if you look from the Thad Cochran Medical Center here to the Natchez Trace to the University of Mississippi to the Delta for agriculture, you see Thad Cochran’s work here. I’ll be pleased to support him in his re-election bid that’s coming up this time. He’s served the state very well.”
State Auditor Stacey Pickering, a Republican, also had said he would run if Cochran didn’t. Pickering said Friday that he won’t challenge Cochran: “I look forward to his continued service to the great state of Mississippi. Sen. Cochran has been the epitome of an honorable statesman and we are better off because of his service.”
U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper, a Republican in the 3rd District, had been mentioned as a possible candidate if Cochran didn’t run. He said Friday that Cochran has his full support. “A true statesman, Sen. Cochran has dedicated his life to serving the people of Mississippi…. And Mississippi needs his leadership in the U.S. Senate now more than ever.”
Chris Chocola, president of Club for Growth, a group that’s backing state Sen. Chris McDaniel in his Republican primary challenge of Cochran: “Throughout his over 40 years in Washington, Sen. Thad Cochran has done some good things for Mississippi, but he’s also done some bad things. He voted to bail out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, voted repeatedly to raise the debt limit by trillions of dollars and even voted against a resolution that stated Congress has a ‘moral obligation’ to cut spending. Sen. Cochran has also voted to confirm liberal Supreme Court Justices and is a strong supporter of wasteful earmarks — something that is opposed by Republican leaders in both the Senate and the House.”
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant: “After Hurricane Katrina, Thad dedicated his time and influence to our state’s recovery efforts as we rebuilt from the nation’s largest natural disaster. Our state has benefited from Sen. Cochran’s leadership for over three decades. In today’s political environment, we need this experience for Mississippi’s future.”