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Mississippi's Thad Cochran to resign from Senate after four-decade congressional career

| Monday, March 5, 2018, 6:03 p.m.
Thad Cochran, R-Miss., returns to the Capitol for a vote in Washington.
Thad Cochran, R-Miss., returns to the Capitol for a vote in Washington.

WASHINGTON — 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 Shelby, R-Ala., who is next in the line of seniority.

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 51-49 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 the president's party has historically faced in a first midterm, has 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 broad tax law later last year has given them a signature achievement on which to run.

There will be two Senate races in Mississippi this year, due to Cochran's departure. A special election for his seat will be held later this year, on the same day as the regularly scheduled Nov. 6 midterms.

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 the Cochran seat would not compete in a primary, and if no candidate received 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 will run against Wicker. But he left the door open to switching to a race for Cochran's seat if one were to take place.

McDaniel represents perhaps the last best hope for the insurgent wing of the Republican Party, in which former White House chief strategist Stephen 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 had backed Moore and hoped a victory would provide momentum in future races where he was trying 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.

As recently as early February, Cochran's wife, Kay Webber Cochran, said there were no plans for Cochran to step down. She held a sale at the couple's Capitol Hill home, putting high-end antiques she has accumulated over the years on the market. Asked by a Post reporter whether she was selling her home or the senator was preparing to soon step down, she responded that they were not.

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