Speculation in the Mississippi House is that Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, is in line to be appointed by Gov. Phil Bryant to replace U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran.

Multiple members of the House – both Republican and Democrat – say there were members of the House positioning themselves to replace Gunn, who some say could resign before the current session is scheduled to end on April 1.

“It is no secret that Sen. Cochran has been in poor health for sometime,” said Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, who served as Cochran’s state political director in 1980. “My understanding from reliable sources is that he will take retirement sometime after March 1.

“Then the same reliable sources tell me Speaker Gunn is in line to be appointed to the Senate seat. Then, it will put the House in the position of having to choose another speaker.”

Speculation in the state and national media has persisted for months that the 80-year-old Cochran, who became the first Republican elected statewide in the modern era when he won the Senate seat in 1978, would be stepping down soon.

If he does step down, the Republican Bryant would appoint a successor to serve until a special election that the governor presumably would call in November on the same day as the regularly scheduled general election.

Members of Gunn’s staff have acknowledged the rumors, but point out similar speculation that Gunn would step down to accept the presidency of Mississippi College in his hometown never materialized in the past.

“This bottom line is that Thad Cochran is still the U.S. senator,” said Nathan Wells, Gunn’s chief of staff. “This is just speculation. Anything can happen in a month, a year, two years.

“The speaker is focused on being speaker. He has every intention of doing that job.”

If Gunn did step down from the post of speaker, under the House rules, Pro Tem Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, would assume the speaker’s duties until “the next succeeding regular legislative session, at which time an election for speaker shall be held under the same terms and conditions as a regular speaker’s elections…If the speaker pro tempore becomes the speaker of the House, a new speaker pro tempore shall be elected.”

The House rules previously provided that the pro tem would serve out the remainder of the term as speaker if the office became vacant. But the House changed the rules in 2016 to call for a new election.

Gunn, 55, is in his second term as speaker and is in his fourth term in the House. While he has never run a statewide election, he has been a high profile figure in recent years – elected by the House as the state’s first Republican speaker since the 1800s.

Should Cochran step down, the ensuing election would receive national attention as Republicans and Democrats battle in the 2018 election cycle for control of the Senate where Republicans hold a slim majority.

There have been reports that other high profile Mississippi Republicans, such as Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves or Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, are not interested in the Senate post should it come open.

It is possible that state Sen. Chris McDaniel of Ellisville, viewed as an anti-establishment Republican, would run for the Cochran seat should it become vacant. McDaniel nearly defeated Cochran during the 2014 Republican primary.

Mississippi’s other U.S. senator, Republican Roger Wicker of Tupelo, also is up for re-election this year. Some believe McDaniel has not qualified to run against Wicker because he believes Cochran will step down this year, and he would opt to run against a new gubernatorial appointee rather than the veteran Wicker.

— Bobby Harrison / Daily Journal