HED: Cochran, Lott to battle for Senate majority leader seat
By Marty Russell
A Mississippian will be the U.S. Senate majority leader for the first time in history, the state’s two senators predicted Thursday as the long-anticipated contest for the post between the two men with markedly different leadership styles got under way.
While initially a number of senators had expressed interest in becoming majority leader after incumbent Bob Dole announced Wednesday he was resigning to focus on his presidential bid, Thursday it appeared only two candidates, Thad Cochran and Trent Lott, remained in the running.
“The indications today are that this could be a race that includes only Sen. Trent Lott and myself,” Cochran said Thursday.
Lott sounded confident Thursday that he had the votes to become majority leader. He has been serving as assistant majority leader under Dole since winning the No. 2 post as majority whip by one vote last year. The election vaulted Lott, who entered the Senate in 1989 after serving 16 years in the House, over Cochran, the state’s senior senator who has served in the Senate since 1978.
Cochran now serves as the Senate Republican Conference chairman, the No. 3 leadership post in the Senate.
“You never have the vote until the vote is taken,” Lott said of the coming election for majority leader. “But I feel very good about the response I’m getting from my colleagues.”
Cochran said, “I don’t know how it will turn out, but I’ve been encouraged by enough senators to run that I have announced I am a candidate.”
No date has been set for the election among Senate Republicans, but both Cochran and Lott said they expect it to come within the next few weeks. Dole’s resignation takes effect June 11.
A factor in the election will be the two men’s leadership styles and political stances. Cochran is considered more moderate and more diplomatic, while Lott is characterized as conservative and combative, much like House Speaker Newt Gingrich who would be his counterpart in that chamber if Lott were elected.
While Lott appeals to younger, more staunchly ideological senators, Cochran has support among older, more moderate members.
That may be in Lott’s favor. University of Mississippi political science professor Dr. Marvin Overby said Senate Republicans have become more conservative with the influx of a lot of new, young members, many of whom formerly served in the House with Lott.
“They’re going to have some serious soul searching to do,” Overby said of Senate Republicans. “(Being majority leader) requires a strong personality but someone who’s willing to listen and be conciliatory. That takes a certain flexibility of character to take half instead of all. That, in the end, cuts more in Cochran’s favor.”
But Lott, who has been running for the majority leader spot even before Dole announced his resignation, has the advantage of being a proven vote-getter in his role as majority whip.
“One thing I can do, I can count votes,” Lott said, adding, “I don’t want 35 or 36 out of 53. I want 53.”
He indicated he was so confident that he has the votes that he expects Cochran to withdraw from the race.
“I hope before the election my colleague decides not to go through with running,” Lott said. “Thad is a wise man and I think he’ll think about it.”
When asked if he thought a direct confrontation on the ballot between himself and Lott could be avoided by one candidate withdrawing, Cochran said, “I would like for (Lott) to withdraw tomorrow and continue to serve as whip. He’s been a very outstanding whip in the Senate.”
Overby said Lott has some advantages in the race but isn’t likely to reach his goal of winning with 53 votes.
“My instincts tell me Lott will win but it won’t be so lopsided to make Cochran pull out,” Overby said. “That’s my guess.”
Both Lott and Cochran, who have served an equal number of years in Congress, with both elected to the House in 1972, said the race would not create animosity between themselves or impair their abilities to represent the state.
“We’re going to run this campaign in such a way based on friendship and mutual respect so that when it’s over we’ll both be able to work like we have in the past in a cordial and cooperative manner,” Cochran said.
Lott said, “There will be no hard feelings on my part. We have not always agreed on everything but we have been able to put that aside and work in the best interest of our state.”