Ill health forces Mississippi’s senior senator from office after nearly 46 years on Capitol Hill
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com
WASHINGTON (CFP) — U.S. Senator Thad Cochran will resign from the Senate effective April 1 for health reasons, triggering a special election that will put both of Mississippi’s Senate seats up for grabs this November.
“I regret my health has become an ongoing challenge,” Cochran said in a March 5 statement announcing his departure. “My hope is by making this announcement now, a smooth transition can be ensured so (the people of Mississippi’s) voice will continue to be heard in Washington, D.C.”
Governor Phil Bryant will appoint a temporary replacement for Cochran until the remaining two years of his term can be filled by a special election in November. Politico reported that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is urging Bryant to appoint himself to the vacancy, which would give him an advantage in pursuing the seat permanently in November.
Cochran’s decision comes just four days after the filing deadline closed for the state’s June primary. After months of speculation that Cochran’s seat could come open, Republican State Senator Chris McDaniel–who fought a bruising primary against Cochran in 2014–committed to making a primary run instead against Cochran’s Senate seatmate, Roger Wicker.
McDaniel could drop out of the race against Wicker and run in the special election for Cochran’s seat, although those calculations would be affected by Bryant’s decision on who will replace Cochran.
After Cochran’s announcement, McDaniel issued a statement saying he would “monitor developments” and “all options remain on the table as we determine the best way to ensure that Mississippi elects conservatives to the United States Senate.”
Cochran, 80, chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, was hospitalized last fall for a urinary tract infection that kept him away from the Capitol for several weeks, raising questions about ability to continue in office.
While he remained chair of the committee, the No. 2 Republican on the panel, U.S. Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, has filled in for Cochran during his frequent absences.
Cochran has served in Congress for nearly 46 years. He was elected to the U.S. House in 1972 and the Senate in 1978, becoming the first Republican elected statewide in Mississippi since Reconstruction.
His toughest race came in 2014, when McDaniel narrowly beat him in the first round of voting in the GOP primary to force a runoff. However, the Republican establishment roared back in favor of the veteran senator, who took the runoff by 7,700 votes.
McDaniel unsuccessfully challenged the result, alleging that the Cochran campaign had induced Democrats to vote illegally in the Republican primary. Under state law, Democratic voters were free to vote in the runoff if they had not voted during the first round in the Democratic primary, a tactic Cochran’s campaign openly encouraged.
The contentious 2014 campaign left bruised feelings in the Magnolia State, particularly after McDaniel supporter Clayton Kelly sneaked into a nursing home to photograph Cochran’s wife, who was suffering from dementia, in order to collect material for a political video alleging that Cochran was involved in an extramarital affair. McDaniel denied any involvement in the scheme.
Kelly later went to prison, and Rose Cochran died in December 2014. Senator Cochran married Kay Webber, a longtime staffer in his Washington office, in 2015.