Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) will resign from the Senate on April 1, he announced Monday, ending a four-decade congressional career and triggering a fall election that could carve new divisions in the Republican Party and put the GOP Senate majority at greater risk.
Cochran, 80, has been suffering from health problems in recent months. He missed several weeks in the Senate last fall while recuperating from a urinary tract infection. He has appeared frail since his return and has been keeping a low public profile.
“I regret my health has become an ongoing challenge,” Cochran 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.”
First elected to the Senate in 1978 after a stint in the House, Cochran is one of the longest-serving members of Congress in history. He is the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, a powerful panel with jurisdiction over government spending. When he steps down, the chairmanship is expected to pass to Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), who is next in the line of seniority.
“He’s been a good friend of mine for 32 years, and so I wished him well,” Shelby told reporters in the Capitol shortly after Cochran’s announcement. He confirmed that he would like to claim the gavel.
“I would be interested in it at the proper time,” Shelby said.
As Cochran grew frail, the committee’s public profile shrank. According to the committee’s website, Cochran has not presided over a public hearing since early September. Senators and staffers are busily working behind closed doors to draw up the final details of the annual federal agency budgets, with a March 23 deadline approaching.
Shelby, 83, went out of his way to vouch for his own health. “I’ve still got a lot of energy,” he said.
Beyond shaking up the Senate, Cochran’s exit will affect the battle for the Senate majority. It gives Republicans another seat to defend at a moment of great uncertainty about the midterms.
Republicans hold a 51-to-49 advantage over Democrats, who are facing a tough map on which they are defending 10 seats in states President Trump won. But Trump’s unpopularity and controversies, combined with headwinds that any president’s party historically faces in a first midterm, have given Democrats hope of seizing back control of the upper chamber.
At the same time, recent polling trends have shown some positive indicators for Republicans, who believe that passing a sweeping tax law late last year has given them a signature achievement on which to run.
There will be two Senate races in Mississippi this year because of Cochran’s departure. A special election for his seat will be held on the same day as the regularly scheduled Nov. 6 midterms.
Democrat Mike Espy, a former congressman who also served as agriculture commissioner during Bill Clinton's presidency, issued a statement after Cochran's announcement declaring his "strong intention" to run for the seat.
In the meantime, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant will be in charge of appointing a replacement for Cochran. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has asked Bryant to consider appointing himself to the seat, according to people familiar with their conversations. But Bryant has shown no signs he is gearing up to do that.
Unlike the regular election this year for Republican Sen. Roger Wicker’s seat, candidates for Cochran’s seat would not compete in a primary, and if no one got more than 50 percent of the vote in November, the top two finishers would compete in a runoff.
Chris McDaniel, a hard-right Republican state senator who lost to Cochran in a nasty 2014 primary, announced last week that he would run against Wicker. But he left the door open to switching to a race for Cochran’s seat if one were to take place.
“I am currently focused on my campaign against Roger Wicker, but all options remain on the table as we determine the best way to ensure that Mississippi elects conservatives to the United States Senate,” McDaniel said.
McDaniel represents perhaps the last best hope for the insurgent wing of the GOP, in which former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and his allies have been plotting to shake up the Republican order by elevating candidates hostile to McConnell.
The loss in Alabama’s special election by Republican Roy Moore, who faced allegations of sexual misconduct against teenage girls when he was in his 30s, was a blow to Bannon, who backed Moore and hoped a victory would provide momentum in future races in which he tried to dislodge McConnell-friendly Republicans.
It was also a blow to Trump, who stuck by Moore, even as many other party leaders disavowed him after the allegations were first reported by The Washington Post.
Cochran’s resignation marks another step in the passing from a more genteel, bipartisan climate in the Senate, especially on the Appropriations Committee, to an era of partisan frenzy.
“He’s the old school,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, who frequently traveled the globe with Cochran on congressional delegations. “He has always, always, always kept his word, and I wish to heck some other senators around here would learn to do that.”