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Cochran resigns effective April 1

Mississippi GOP Gov. Phil Bryant will select Sen. Thad Cochran’s replacement. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) will resign from the Senate on April 1, his office announced Monday, triggering a second Senate election in Mississippi this fall and reshaping the leadership of one of Congress’ most powerful committees.

“I regret my health has become an ongoing challenge,” Cochran said in a statement released on Monday afternoon. Cochran serves as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

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Mississippi GOP Gov. Phil Bryant will select Cochran’s replacement, who will hold the seat until the special election. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has urged Bryant to appoint himself, according to a person familiar with the discussions. But late Monday, Republicans said they doubt Bryant will do so, and they are fretting about how to keep conservative state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a former Cochran challenger, out of the Senate.

GOP Sen. Roger Wicker is up for reelection in November and is currently facing McDaniel. With Cochran’s retirement, a special election will take place the same day to fill out the rest of Cochran’s term, which runs until 2020. McDaniel could also switch and run for Cochran’s seat if his replacement looks more vulnerable than Wicker.

Cochran’s health, mental acuity and future in the Senate have been a subject of intense speculation for months in Washington and back home, and in recent days he’s been voting under the close supervision of aides on the Senate floor. GOP senators and party leaders had privately been assumed that he would leave after work is completed on a massive year-end omnibus spending bill this month. That legislation is expected to include provisions benefiting Mississippi, which Cochran can help push through from his post atop the Appropriations panel.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) is next in line to take over the top appropriations post. He said on Monday evening he will seek the chairmanship and hopes he is not challenged, a safe bet according to Republican aides.

Cochran’s ability to run the committee was clearly in doubt, as his staff handled nearly all aspects of the work without much visible input by Cochran. The 80-year-old Republican has not chaired an Appropriations Committee meeting since last year, and he has not made a speech on the Senate floor during this entire Congress. Flanked by aides, he ignored questions on Monday about his retirement.

His wife, Kay Bowen Webber, earns $ 165,000 as an executive assistant in his office, according to Senate disbursement records.

“My top concern has always been my constituents in Mississippi. My hope is by making this announcement now, a smooth transition can be ensured so their voice will continue to be heard in Washington, D.C. My efforts, and those of my staff, to assist them will continue and transfer to my successor,” Cochran said in his statement.

After Cochran’s successor is named, a special election will follow — but with a twist. The state has a so-called jungle primary system, with no party identification listed on the ballot. If no candidate tops 50 percent margin, a runoff will be held.

McDaniel said he was monitoring both races but is focused on Wicker. McConnell’s allies have signaled they could attack McDaniel in his campaign against the incumbent; Republicans fear that McDaniel could make the Senate race unnecessarily competitive as well as undercut their agenda in the narrowly divided Senate.

“What is important is that Mississippi now has the unique opportunity to send two conservatives to the U.S. Senate,” McDaniel said. “If Mississippi won’t send conservatives to the United States Senate, who will?”

Mississippi is typically a safe Republican state. Donald Trump won there in 2016 with 58 percent of the vote to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s 40 percent. But after an embarrassing loss in Alabama — a state even redder than Mississippi — Republicans won’t want to take any chances in November.

“Depending on who the governor appoints, it could be a runaway winner,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). “A lot depends on the person he selects and I’m sure that’s very much on his mind.”

Donald Trump and Paul Ryan are pictured. | Getty Images

Bryant will have no shortage of Republicans to choose from when making the appointment. Republicans have mentioned Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, Rep. Gregg Harper, state Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith and even McDaniel as possible appointments.

“I don’t think anything has solidified behind one person,” said a GOP senator.

The Democratic bench in the state is thin, though a favorable political environment could help them with recruitment. The top prospective candidate is likely Attorney General Jim Hood, one of just three statewide elected Democrats in the Deep South. The party recruited Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, a relative of Elvis, to run against Wicker before he turned down a bid.

Both state House Minority Leader David Baria and venture capitalist Howard Sherman entered the race last week, and one could switch to run for Cochran’s seat.

Cochran was first elected to Congress in 1972, making him one of the longest-serving GOP lawmakers in history. His election to the Senate in Mississippi in 1978 was a watershed moment for that state’s Republican Party: Cochran was the first Republican to win a statewide election in Mississippi since Reconstruction.

Cochran has been a formidable inside player during his Senate tenure. He made a career of steering federal dollars back home, working with former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) for years to ensure their state benefited from hundreds of “earmarks” inserted in annual appropriations bills.

“Today, the Senate learned that one of our longest-serving colleagues, Senator Thad Cochran, will retire on April 1st to focus on his health and enjoy more time with his family,” McConnell said in a statement. “Thad’s well-earned reputation as a ‘quiet persuader’ has endeared him to all his colleagues. Whatever the issue at hand, his allies and adversaries have always admired his unfailingly even keel, sober expertise, and respectful demeanor.”

Bryant, in a statement, didn’t mention picking a successor to Cochran, instead praising the retiring senator’s long service in the Senate.

“Sen. Thad Cochran’s service ushered in an era of unprecedented influence for our state and will benefit generations to come,” Bryant said.

Elana Schor and Daniel Strauss contributed to this report.

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