WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran announced Monday he is resigning effective April 1 because of health reasons, ending one of the longest and most storied political careers in Mississippi history.
He is 80.
“I regret my health has become an ongoing challenge. 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,” Cochran said in a statement Monday.
“It has been a great honor to serve the people of Mississippi and our country,” Cochran. “My hope is by making this announcement now, a smooth transition can be ensured so their voice will continue to be heard in Washington, D.C.”
Cochran is the fourth Republican senator to announce he will not seek another term this year, joining Bob Corker of Tennessee, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Orrin Hatch of Utah.
Cochran was first elected to the Senate in 1978, becoming the first Republican in more than 100 years to win a statewide election in Mississippi. He is the tenth-longest serving Senator in U.S. history. Cochran previously served three terms in House of Representatives.
Cochran, a Republican, was re-elected in 2014 to a seventh six-year term that began in January of 2015. He had been serving as chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, a post he had held briefly in the mid-2000s and was scheduled to continue through 2018.
Cochran previously served in the U.S. House from 1973-1978 before winning an election to replace longtime Sen. James Eastland, who retired.
Cochran, of quiet stately demeanor and known for playing piano to relax in his office, has been called “Gentleman Thad” by his peers in Congress. Time Magazine dubbed him “The Quiet Persuader” for his behind the scenes consensus building in the Senate. But he’s also been called the “King of Pork” for his securing billions in federal spending for Mississippi.
“I hope it works as well as it always has,” Cochran said in a 2014 interview with USA TODAY. “I think honesty and sincerity are the two most important ingredients to serve us here in the Senate — with knowledge of the subject matter. That’s important, too.”
Senate Republican leaders said Monday they were saddened to learn Cochran would retire, but praised his years of service.
“Thad’s well-earned reputation as a ‘quiet persuader’ has endeared him to all his colleagues,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. “Whatever the issue at hand, his allies and adversaries have always admired his unfailingly even keel, sober expertise, and respectful demeanor.”
Democrats and Republicans have applauded Cochran’s low-key style. Cochran was not known to host press conferences or flashy events. He was best known for working behind closed doors to reach a compromise.
Before the practice was banned in 2010, Cochran had a long history of steering federal money for special projects, or earmarks, to Mississippi, one of the nation’s poorest states. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Cochran secured millions in federal funds for recovery efforts in the Gulf Coast and worked with former Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana, to push for aid after Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the longest serving Democrat currently in the Senate, recalled his work with Cochran over the years on a host of issues, including agriculture and spending bills.
“Throughout all of this time, from our time working together on the Agriculture Committee to the Appropriations Committee, I knew I could trust Thad because he is a man of his word,” Leahy said Monday. “The Senate needs more devoted public servants like Thad Cochran, and I am sad to see my dear friend leave.”
Cochran hasn’t been as visible on Capitol Hill in recent months. He missed a series of votes last fall because of illness. He returned, however, for a crucial vote on the tax bill.
It’s not clear yet who will replace Cochran.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant praised Cochran calling him one of the state’s “greatest public servants.”
Bryant said he will appoint Cochran’s temporary replacement within 10 days of his departure. An election in November will determine who serves the remaining two years of Cochran’s term. Mississippi’s other GOP senator Roger Wicker also faces re-election in November.
Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., announced in January he planned to retire at the end of this year. Harper, chairman of the House Administration Committee, campaigned with Cochran during the senator’s 2014 bid.
State Sen. Chris McDaniel, who narrowly lost to Cochran in a bitter battle in 2014, announced last week he would challenge Wicker. McDaniel has never conceded his lost to Cochran.
Cochran was notably absent for much of his own primary campaign in 2014, making few personal appearances and prompting questions about his health and ability to serve a seventh term.
Cochran trailed McDaniel in the primary, barely making it into a runoff. Cochran’s team called in decades’ worth of goodwill from his moderate politics and securing federal money for Mississippi programs, winning the GOP runoff primarily with cross-over votes from Democrats and the African-American community and support from the Republican “establishment” in D.C. and Mississippi.
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