By Sid Salter
STARKVILLE – Speculation over whether Thad Cochran, Mississippi’s senior U.S. senator, will seek a seventh term in office in the 2014 election continues to gain steam and remains – at the very best – speculation.
Cochran, the Republican who has held the Senate post since first winning election to succeed Democrat James O. “Big Jim” Eastland in 1978, has represented Mississippi’s interests on Capitol Hill since his days in the U.S. House in 1972 – an astounding 40 total years of service. Cochran’s three-term House career ended with his election to the U.S. Senate in 1978.
In deference to the great value Mississippi voters placed in seniority and his own belief that every little bit helped, Eastland stepped down early before his term ended to allow Cochran to gain a little extra seniority over his colleagues elected in the same election cycle.
And while 40 years sounds like a long time, Mississippi voters have long recognized that with such a small Capitol Hill delegation dictated by Mississippi’s spare population, seniority was one of the few means to give the state clout in completing for the state’s slice of the federal pie. That outsized sense of the value of seniority led to investing decades of it in Mississippi’s past congressional delegation.
The late former House Appropriations Committee chairman U.S. Rep. Jamie Whitten of Charleston – known derisively among some House colleagues as the “permanent Secretary of Agriculture” – exerted enormous influence. State voters gave John C. Stennis – the late chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services and Appropriations committees – a 41-year run in the U.S. Senate.
Eastland, the man Cochran succeeded, was a legendary Mississippi political power broker and turned in 35 years of service on Capitol Hill, notably as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The late G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery – “Mr. Veteran” and “Mr. National Guard” to his colleagues – served 30 years and literally authored the modern G.I. Bill that bears his name.
Former U.S. Senate Republican Majority Leader and U.S. House Republican Whip Trent Lott of Pascagoula spent 16 years in the House and another 19 years in the Senate during his career
So the notion that Mississippi voters are in any way adverse to incumbency and long tenures from their congressional delegation simply ignores history. Cochran’s courtly manners and easy approachability has made him a favorite of state voters.
Yet Cochran’s steadfast leadership on federal agricultural programs designed to address poverty, hunger and child nutrition deficiencies has drawn some fire from the more conservative wing of the GOP and particularly from Tea Party members. Cochran’s age (he will turn 75 on Dec. 7) and GOP primary battles between more Main Street Republicans and the Tea Party candidates have fueled speculation that he would retire or that he would draw substantial primary opposition even if he sought re-election.
As one who covered Cochran’s first Senate campaign and all since, I had an opportunity to spend a little time with Sen. Cochran at a recent sporting event, and I left that encounter with a few distinct observations. The man I saw didn’t look like a man preparing for retirement. The recent spate of Mississippi and Washington fundraisers also don’t seem the actions of a politician preparing for a permanent trip home to sit on the porch.
Finally, if Cochran indeed chooses to seek that seventh term, his opponent(s) – GOP primary or otherwise – would be well-advised to take the full measure of a man who universally respected in Washington and extraordinarily well-liked and admired in Mississippi.
For all his white hair and four decades’ experience, Thad Cochran still looks and sounds like a man who can still go a few hard rounds with anyone who steps into the ring with him.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist.Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 507-8004.