BILL MINOR: Many ‘wannabes’ await Cochran’s political plans

By Bill Minor

Eight U.S. senators, most of them younger than our Thad Cochran, have signaled they’ve had enough of the supposed “most deliberative body in the world” and are retiring next year. Not Thaddeus. At least, not so far.
In a surprise, conservative Democrat Max Baucus of Montana last week announced he wouldn’t seek re-election, giving up the powerful chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee. Baucus is 71. Thad is 75 and will be 76 in December.
Both Baucus and Cochran have six terms under their belt. Both seemed to have a perfectly safe seat, especially Cochran.
The Montanan however wanted to let the folks back home know well in advance that he won’t be on the ballot next November.
The rumor mill down here has been grinding overtime that this is Thad’s last term.
So far, however, he’s done nothing to stop it. Nor has he indicated that he might pull another Trent Lott trick – be reelected and then suddenly quit in midterm.
But the GOP’s expected handoff of the Lott seat in 2004 from Haley Barbour to Chip Pickering was embarrassingly fumbled, winding up in the hands of Roger Wicker, then occupying the First District House seat.
Turns out that Chipper, thought to be a family values poster-boy, had feet of clay: A divorce from his wife, Leisha, then a quiet big-dollar settlement of Leisha’s alienation of affection lawsuit against a woman Chip had been seeing in Washington, whose family owns a big cellular phone company.
There’s more: Chipper doesn’t wind up in the poor house, but is scooped up by the state’s biggest lobbying firm that has the cell phone business as a major client.
One thing is for sure: A hungry pack of Republican officeholders down here are eager to grab Cochran’s seat, perhaps the choicest plum in state politics.
Among the hungriest is Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, with State Auditor Stacey Pickering close behind. Still others say Rep. Gregg Harper is in the hunt.
After eight years in the House, Cochran in 1978 succeeded retiring Democratic Sen. Jim Eastland, winning the seat in what many called a fluke because Charles Evers, running as an independent, siphoned off much of the black vote that normally goes to Democrats.
Maybe influenced by circumstances of his election, Cochran started his Senate career as more of a moderate than he has been in later years.
Even William Winter, then fresh from his term as governor, made little dent in Cochran’s popularity when in 1984 he ill-advisedly opposed Thad’s reelection.
That race marked the last threat Mississippi Democrats have been able to mount against Cochran.
After Trent in 1988 moved from the House to the Senate junior senator seat, Cochran resumed his intramural battle with the ambitious Trent over federal judgeships, Republican leadership posts and occasionally, legislation.
Lott, who had outmaneuvered Cochran to become Senate Majority Leader, was booted from his post in December, 2002, after earlier praising Sen. Strom Thurmond’s segregationist stance in the 1948 Dixiecrat bolt movement.
Then Lott mysteriously announced he would resign his Senate seat one year after his reelection in 2006.
With Lott no longer his sparring partner, Cochran seems to have lost interest in political combat, particularly since Democrats won Senate control in 2008 and 2012 and there’s little prospect they’ll lose it in 2014.
Cochran no longer veers from the party line laid down by Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky even though he is older and has gathered a wealth of wisdom shaped by a Deep South perspective McConnell doesn’t have.
Back a few years ago, Cochran admitted “I don’t have any long range plans.” A lot of political observers back here are wondering again what he means by that statement.
Syndicated columnist BILL MINOR has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at edinman@earthlink.net.