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Cochran, the state’s first Republican senator since Reconstruction, served 45 years in Congress
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
OXFORD, Mississippi (CFP) — Former U.S. Senator Thad Cochran, who became one of Mississippi’s most revered statesmen in a political career that spanned nine presidents, has died. He was 81.
Cochran died May 30 at a nursing home in Oxford. His death was announced by the office of his successor, U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith. His daughter, Kate, told the Washington Post that the cause of death was renal failure.
Cochran retired in April 2018 because of ongoing health issues that had kept him away from the Senate for several months.
A funeral service will be held Monday at 11 a.m. at the State Capitol in Jackson. A second service will follow Tuesday at the Northminster Baptist Church in Jackson at 11 a.m.
Tributes for the late senator began pouring upon news of his death.
U.S. Senator Roger Wicker, who sat alongside Cochran representing Mississippi for a decade, said he “was a giant in the United States Senate and one of the greatest champions Mississippi has ever known.”
“When Thad Cochran left the Senate, I was reminded of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wrote, ‘Lives of great men all remind us we can make our lives sublime, and departing leave behind us footprints on the sands of time,'” Wicker said. “Thad Cochran’s footprints are all around us
“Mississippi and our nation have lost a true statesman in Thad Cochran,” said Governor Phil Bryant. “He was a legend in the United States Senate where he worked tirelessly to move his state and country forward.”
President Donald Trump expressed condolences on Twitter: “Very sad to hear the news on the passing of my friend, Senator Thad Cochran. He was a real Senator with incredible values – even flew back to Senate from Mississippi for important Healthcare Vote when he was desperately ill. Thad never let our Country (or me) down!”
Cochran was born in 1937 in Pontotoc, a small town in the state’s northeast corner. After graduating from Ole Miss in 1959, he served two years in the Navy before returning home to finish law school and begin practicing law in Jackson.
His first foray into politics came in the 1968 presidential race, when he became state chairman for Richard Nixon’s campaign. At the time, the Republican Party was virtually non-existent in Mississippi, and segregationist George Wallace would bury Nixon. But four years later, Cochran would be elected to Congress on Nixon’s coattails as a Republican.
Cochran served three terms in the House before being elected to the Senate in 1978, becoming the first Republican since Reconstruction to represent the Magnolia State in the Senate.
During his time in the Senate, Cochran chaired both the agriculture and appropriations committees, positions that allowed him to funnel billions of dollars in federal money to projects back home, earning him the nickname “King of Pork.”
Cochran routinely won re-election without breaking a sweat until 2014, when he was challenged in the Republican primary by State Senator Chris McDaniel, who tried to rally Tea Party support to dislodge Cochran.
McDaniel forced Cochran into a primary runoff, which is when the good will and political capital the senator had banked during his long career paid off — he narrowly beat McDaniel after encouraging Democratic voters, including African Americans and farmers, to cross over and vote for him in the runoff.
That campaign became extremely contentious, particularly after a McDaniel supporter sneaked into a nursing home to shoot video of Cochran’s late wife, Rose, who was suffering from dementia, which was part of a gambit to accuse the senator of having an improper relationship with an aide.
The hard feelings remained in 2018, when McDaniel ran to succeed Cochran and the Republican establishment pulled out all the stops for Hyde-Smith, who beat McDaniel easily.
Rose Cochran died in 2014. In 2015, the senator married Kay Webber, a longtime aide.
Cochran is survived by his wife, two children and three grandchildren.