Thad Cochran, who was first elected to the United States Senate in 1978, announced Monday he will step down on April 1.
In a statement, the 80-year-old Cochran said, “I regret my health has become an ongoing challenge. I intend to fulfill my responsibilities and commitments to the people of Mississippi and the Senate through the completion of the 2018 appropriations cycle, after which I will formally retire from the U.S. Senate.
“It has been a great honor to serve the people of Mississippi and our country. I’ve done my best to make decisions in the best interests of our nation, and my beloved state. My top concern has always been my constituents in Mississippi. My hope is by making this announcement now, a smooth transition can be ensured so their voice will continue to be heard in Washington, D.C.”
Rumors have circulated for months that Cochran would be stepping down. He has served as Appropriations chairman of the Senate since his re-election in 2014.
He is expected to return to his home in Oxford after the current appropriations cycle is complete before April 1.
On social media, Gov. Phil Bryant said of Cochran, “He was a leader in Washington and a powerful advocate for every Mississippian.”
For much of his career, Cochran was viewed as a consensus builder, able to work across the political aisle.
State Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, who served as Cochran’s state political director in 1980, called him “one of the all-time greats who saw the big picture. He knew how to govern, and he knew Mississippi…He knew his state was a poor state that needed the federal government.”
Cochran, was born in Pontotoc and lived in Tippah County where his parents were teachers at Blue Mountain College before his family moved to central Mississippi.
Cochran, a Jackson attorney, ran for and was elected to the U.S. House in 1972 where he served before winning the Senate seat in 1978. He was the first Republican to win a statewide election in Mississippi in the modern era.
Cochran was re-elected to the Senate six times. He faced little opposition in most of his re-election efforts until 2014 when little known state Sen. Chris McDaniel of Ellisville led Cochran in the first Republican primary, but did not garner the majority vote needed to avoid a runoff. In the runoff, Cochran was able to prevail and then easily won the general election.
The announcement Monday afternoon fueled what already was an active rumor mill involving the possible scenarios to fill the Cochran seat.
McDaniel announced last week he is challenging the state’s other U.S. senator, Republican Roger Wicker of Tupelo, who is up for re-election this year.
But some speculate that McDaniel will drop out of that race and run in the special election created by Cochran’s retirement. In the coming days, the governor is expected to name an interim replacement for Cochran and set a special election for Nov. 6 – the same day as other regularly scheduled elections, including the general election for the Wicker seat.
McDaniel said it was “too early to say” whether he would remain in the race against Wicker or enter the special election to replace Cochran.
“I wish Sen. Cochran nothing but the best in his retirement and thank him for his service to Mississippi…” McDaniel said in a statement. “Given Sen. Cochran’s retirement, I will continue to monitor developments regarding his replacement and the special election that will follow.”
Mike Espy, who was elected in the 1980s as the state’s first African American U.S. House member since the 1800s and who served as secretary of agriculture in the Bill Clinton administration, said soon after Cochran’s announcement he intended to run in the special election.
“I just learned of the pending resignation of Sen. Cochran – a person I admire and respect, and who has done so much for Mississippi over his tenure,” Espy said in a statement. “However, now that he has announced his pending resignation I would like to declare my strong intention to run in the special election.”
Paul “Buzzy” Mize, of Tupelo who worked on the Cochran campaign in 1978 and remains close to the senator, called him “a senator’s senator” who was underappreciated “because he did not seek out the publicity. He just sought out the work.” Work that Mize said he accomplished for the betterment of Mississippi and the nation.
Soon after Cochran announced his retirement, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said, “Sen. Cochran’s service to our nation has made the lives of Mississippians better, and his support of our military has made America safer. He fought relentlessly for Mississippi, from helping our farmers get their crops to market to fighting for our citizens after Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the state.”
It has been speculated that Bryant might appoint Reeves to the post. Other speculation has centered on House Speaker Philip Gunn, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann and others. There has even been speculation he might step aside as governor and take the Senate post himself.
When asked about a possible appointment, Meg Annison, a spokeswoman for Gunn, praised Cochran and said the speaker “was focused” on the ongoing 2018 state legislative session.
Hosemann said, “There are no words to describe how important Sen. Cochran, a true gentleman and statesman, has been to Mississippi.”
Wicker called Cochran “one of the greatest leaders in our state’s history.”
— By Bobby Harrison / Daily Journal
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