Political News

Cochran Announces Retirement, Opening Another GOP Seat

Posted March 5, 2018 8:25 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — Sen. Thad Cochran, an octogenarian Republican from Mississippi who serves as chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, announced Monday that he is resigning from the Senate on April 1 because of ill health — a decision that will create two Senate races in his home state in November.

“I regret my health has become an ongoing challenge,” Cochran, 80, said in a statement. “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.”

Cochran, who previously served three terms in the House, was first elected to the Senate in 1978, becoming the first Republican in more than 100 years to win a statewide election in Mississippi. He is the 10th-longest serving senator in U.S. history.

Sen. Roger Wicker, the junior Republican senator from Mississippi, is already running for re-election this year and has drawn a primary challenge from the same firebrand state senator, Chris McDaniel, who nearly unseated Cochran in 2014.

Cochran’s retirement means that Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, will have 10 days to appoint an interim senator. A special election would then be held on Election Day in November to fill the rest of Cochran’s term, which expires in 2020.

Multiple Republican officials said Bryant was likely to pick somebody who would run for the seat in November, avoiding a caretaker. The question now is whether McDaniel will drop his challenge to Wicker and try to claim Cochran’s seat.

McDaniel, a hard-line conservative with a history of making inflammatory statements, had remained silent about his 2018 intentions for months, waiting to see whether Cochran would resign. By waiting until Monday to reveal his intention to step down, Cochran effectively forced McDaniel to enter the race against Wicker.

Yet even as he formally declared his bid last week, McDaniel did not rule out changing races.

“While it is certain that Mississippi will have two U.S. Senate races this year, I am currently focused on my campaign against Roger Wicker,” he said in a statement Monday, “but all options remain on the table as we determine the best way to ensure that Mississippi elects conservatives to the United States Senate.”

Wicker, for his part, was asked by reporters at the Capitol if he was relieved to see Cochran step aside. “No,” he said. “It’s sad news.”

Bryant has not offered any hints about whom he would appoint to replace Cochran, but Republicans close to the governor said he would not choose McDaniel.

Immediately after Cochran put out word Monday that he would leave the Senate after nearly four decades, the senator’s top aide and close adviser, Brad White, said, “I hope he appoints somebody who can win a general election.”

Asked if that includes McDaniel, White said, “No.”

President Donald Trump and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, have encouraged Bryant to appoint himself, arguing that the party needs to block McDaniel and forestall any potential replay of the Roy Moore debacle last year in Alabama that handed the Democrats a seat in the Deep South.

Bryant has to date resisted the entreaties. If he does not take the seat, the governor is expected to consider Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who is also thought to want to run for governor when Bryant becomes term-limited in 2019, and Secretary of State Delbert Hoseman. Other possibilities include state House Speaker Philip Gun and state Auditor Stacey Pickering.

Democrats have not won a Senate race in Mississippi since 1982, when veteran Sen. John Stennis defeated Haley Barbour, but state and national Republicans worry about whether their grip on the state’s two seats could be in peril should McDaniel find success. Last week, David Baria, the state House Democratic leader, announced his intention to run for Wicker’s seat. Democrats have also wooed Brandon Presley, a cousin to Elvis Presley and chairman of the state’s Public Service Commission, to run for the Senate.

Mike Espy, a former Democratic congressman and agriculture secretary in the Clinton administration, said late Monday that he would consider running for Cochran’s seat.

Espy, who is African-American and from a prominent Delta family, could be a formidable candidate in a state where black voters make up much of the Democratic Party. Democrats are watching which race McDaniel chooses, hoping to put their most formidable candidate against the state senator.

Cochran has been a genteel presence in the Senate for decades, but in recent years his physical decline has become apparent. On Monday, as the Senate voted on two judicial nominations, he was guided into the chamber by aides and was silent as reporters peppered him with questions.

His decision to leave opens up the coveted chairman’s spot on the Senate Appropriations Committee, where leadership is determined by seniority. The senator next in line is Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala. Asked if he wants the job, Shelby said, “It would be a great honor, but I’m not there yet,” and added, “I would be interested at the proper time.”

Longtime members of the Senate said they were sorry to see Cochran go. “I’m devastated,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the most senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

“I assumed we would serve out our time together here,” Leahy said, adding, “He has always, always, always kept his word, and I wish to heck some other senators around here would learn to do that.”