Thad Cochran first went to Congress in 1972, riding on the broad Mississippi coattails of Richard Nixon, alongside fellow Ole Miss cheerleader Trent Lott. Six years later, he became the first statewide Republican winner since Reconstruction, succeeding veteran segregationist Democrat Jim Eastland and symbolizing the partisan and racial realignment of his state and the South.
With John Conyers’s resignation earlier this month, Cochran became the longest-serving member of Congress (Utah’s Orrin Hatch has him beat in Senate seniority by two years, and is thus Senate president pro tem). Lott left the Senate 15 years ago this week. Cochran’s current, seventh term doesn’t run out until 2020, and the octogenarian is probably hoping Hatch will retire next year and let him crown his career as third in the line of succession to the presidency. But it’s not looking good. Aside from a urological ailment that has kept him back home in Mississippi a good part of this autumn, Cochran is reportedly not in the best state of mind to serve in the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body. Politico had this unhappy report in October when Cochran got back to Washington for some key votes:
The 79-year-old Cochran appeared frail and at times disoriented during a brief hallway interview on Wednesday. He was unable to answer whether he would remain chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and at one point, needed a staffer to remind him where the Senate chamber is located.
Now Politico is reporting that it may just be a matter of time until Cochran has to step down as Appropriations chair, and perhaps as senator:
[Cochran] hasn’t presided over a hearing since early September. The Mississippi Republican has not given a speech on the Senate floor all year, and he’s introduced only two bills during that time, both of them minor.
The 80-year-old’s feeble performance has fueled expectations — among senators and aides who’ve witnessed his physical and mental decline firsthand — that Cochran will step down from the Appropriations chairmanship early next year, or resign from the Senate altogether.
“The understanding is that he will leave after Jan. 1,” said a Republican senator who serves on the Appropriations Committee. “That’s what most of us believe will happen.”
It’s hard to imagine Cochran lingering on in the Senate if he has to give up the Appropriations gavel. Of all the types of latter-day southern senators — the demagogues, the ideologues, and the wheeler-dealers are other categories — Cochran represents the Appropriator, the congressman who is able to steer vast federal resources to his very poor state by dint of seniority and an easygoing demeanor. It is this quality that enabled him to survive (very narrowly) an ideology-based primary challenge in 2014 from fire-breather Chris McDaniel. In a runoff campaign, Cochran openly appealed to Mississippi Democrats and independents to keep him in the Senate to ensure that federal largesse continued to flow into the state.
And it’s Cochran’s success as an Appropriator that has made it possible for him to stay in office despite a voting record that is much less savagely conservative than your average southern Republican would prefer.
Indeed, it seems Cochran (or the people around Cochran; it’s hard to tell how much autonomy he currently exercises), would like to hold on until this year’s on-again, off-again appropriations process is completed, once Congress tires of stopgap spending bills and gets serious, perhaps in January or February. But with No. 2 appropriator Richard Shelby of Alabama already more or less running the committee, it’s unclear why his Mississippi colleague doesn’t bend to the inevitable, much as a 91-year-old Robert Byrd did in giving up the Approps gavel in 2008.
If Cochran does retire from the Senate in January, his state’s Republican governor, Phil Bryant, will appoint an interim senator who will serve until a nonpartisan special election that would coincide with next year’s general election (if there’s no majority winner on November 6, then a special runoff would be held later in that month). Since Cochran’s junior colleague Roger Wicker (a mere lad at 66) is also up in 2018, that would mean a double Senate election (which could also very easily happen in Arizona if John McCain’s health forces him to resign), which despite Mississippi’s deep-red character is always a perilous circumstance for the party in power.
This creates an interesting dilemma for the man who nearly ended Cochran’s Senate career in 2014, Chris McDaniel, who was mulling another hyperideological campaign, this time against Wicker, next year. He could stay that course, or gamble on a special election in November. Either way, the Republican civil war will probably come to Mississippi in 2018. And the odds are high that whoever takes over Cochran’s old seat won’t resemble him very much — unless another former Ole Miss cheerleader is available.