By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Thad Cochran, facing a challenge from the insurgent Tea Party, announced Friday he will seek at seventh term next year in the U.S. Senate and expressed confidence in his re-election chances.
“I will run hard and be successful so that I can continue to serve the people of Mississippi and our nation effectively,” said Cochran, who turns 76 today.
The announcement, which ended months of speculation, came Friday afternoon without fanfare, via an e-mailed news release, though earlier in the day his office confirmed a report from a Washington journalist that he is seeking re-election.
In a later interview with the Daily Journal, Cochran, who said he has been busy working to reach a compromise on the nation’s farm bill, conceded, “I really wrestled with the decision” to run again, but committed to a winning campaign.
If Republicans recapture the Senate next year, Cochran will be in line again to serve as chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, where he is a senior member. He’s the ranking Republican on the Agriculture Committee.
Cochran has not been seriously challenged since at least 1984 when former Gov. William Winter vied to upseat him in his first re-election bid. State Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, who has the backing of many Tea Party-affliated groups, announced in October his intention to run for the post in the June 3 Republican primary.
Other Republicans hinted that they likely would run if Cochran stepped aside. But McDaniel has said he intended to run regardless of Cochran’s decision.
On Friday, through his campaign, McDaniel said, “Senator Cochran has had a long and distinguished career representing the people of Mississippi. I look forward to a positive campaign based on the future of our state, our country and the Republican Party. As a strong conservative, I will fight to bring those values to Washington.”
Many other key Republicans appeared to be lining up with Cochran.
Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, who had planned to run if Cochran did not, said, “From the Natchez Trace to the agriculture research in the Mississippi Delta, from Katrina recovery on the Coast to the University Medical Center, Mississippians do not need to go far to see the work Senator Cochran has accomplished for our state. I look forward to supporting his re-election.”
Auditor Stacey Pickering, who also was considering a campaign for the position, said soon after the news broke, “I look forward to his continued service to the great state of Mississippi. Senator Cochran has been the epitome of an honorable statesman and we are better off because of his service.”
The state’s junior senator, Republican Roger Wicker of Tupelo, said, “The people of Mississippi need his experience and proven conservative leadership more than ever. Thad’s work on behalf of Mississippi is a testament to his selfless dedication to our state and its future. He has my full support.”
U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper, a Rankin County Republican, called Cochran “a true statesman” and said “Mississippi needs his leadership in the U.S. Senate now more than ever.”
U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee, a Republican from Lee County, called Cochran’s re-election bid “fantastic news. His steady leadership has helped guide our nation through good times and bad. He never wavers from his principles and always puts Mississippi first.”
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Gov. Phil Bryant also offered their support for Cochran.
“I am glad Senator Cochran is running for re-election and I, like thousands of Mississippians, had encouraged him to do so,” Reeves said. “He is the father of the conservative Republican takeover of Mississippi, and his wisdom will be an asset to the conservative cause as long as he serves.”
Bryant, who received a phone call from Cochran on Friday morning informing him of his decision, said he is absolutely” supporting Cochran and called him a hero.
The question now is whether the winner of the Republican primary will have Democratic opposition. Rickey Cole, state chair of the Democratic Party, said “probably” when asked whether his party would challenge for the seat.
Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, who has been viewed as a possible candidate for the Senate seat, said he was focused on speaking at a memorial Friday afternoon for former Gov. Bill Allain and “had not given it any thought.”
Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat, said, “We respect Senator Cochran’s decision to seek a seventh term. Should he be successful, we look forward to him continuing his service to the citizens of Mississippi.”
Former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and former U.S. Rep. Travis Childers of Booneville did not comment on a potential race for the seat.
Cochran indicated Friday he is ready for all challengers.
“Our nation and the state of Mississippi continue to face many challenges and opportunities,” he said. “We must work to defend our national security interests, roll back burdensome policies like Obamacare, continue the fight to reduce our national debt and create opportunities for more jobs and economic growth.”
When elected to the Senate in 1978, Cochran was the first statewide elected Republican since the 1800s. He had been elected to the U.S. House in 1972 from a southwest Mississippi district. He lived in Hinds County at the time.
The Pontotoc native said he plans to soon return to his home in Oxford for the holiday season.