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Thad Cochran, former Senate Appropriations chairman, has died at age 81

Mississippi Republican known for old-school civility served in Congress for 45 years

Former Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who died Thursday, served in Congress for 45 years. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Former Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who died Thursday, served in Congress for 45 years. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the mannerly former chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, where he was a dependable provider for his home state during more than four decades in Congress, has died at the age of 81.

Cochran, who retired from the Senate on April 1, 2018, after dealing with health issues, died Thursday morning in Oxford, Mississippi, according to a statement circulated by Chris Gallegos, his longtime communications director.

[Thad Cochran: A life in photos]

Cochran was one of the longest-serving senators, with nearly 39 years in office. Before that, he spent six years in the House.

Unlike some Deep South colleagues from his generation, Cochran had always served served as a member of the GOP. By winning his first Senate race in 1978, he became the first Republican to be elected statewide in Mississippi in a century, dating back to Reconstruction in the 1870s.

During his long Senate tenure, Cochran also led Republicans on the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, where he was a fierce defender of the interests of his home state’s farmers.

From 2018: A Look back at Sen. Thad Cochran’s congressional career

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Cochran was first elected to the House in 1972, the year of Richard Nixon’s overwhelming re-election — he carried 49 states — and before the Watergate scandal. He was elected to the Senate in 1978 during the Carter administration, succeeding James O. Eastland, who resigned the day after Christmas so Cochran could be sworn in early and gain a seniority advantage over other freshmen.

Cochran was a defender of Senate procedure and worked politely with fellow lawmakers regardless of their political beliefs. It’s a style of politics that has gone out of vogue in recent years.

Former Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, the former top Democrat on Appropriations, once described Cochran as “very much a Southern gentleman, old school on civility, a very firm fiscal conservative.”

Republican Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the current Appropriations chairman, said in a statement that Cochran was a close personal friend and “a true hero to the people of Mississippi” who “served our nation with the utmost dignity and respect.”

Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont said he and Cochran were close partners on agriculture issues and could find agreement despite being partisan counterparts on the Appropriations panel.

“We visited farms together in Vermont — where [Cochran] expressed amazement at the cold seasonal temperatures — and in Mississippi, and we led Senate delegations to the Middle East, former Eastern Bloc nations, and other regions,” Leahy said in a statement. “He was an American patriot, and a model of what we can be as a Senate and as a country.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Cochran “wielded great influence with abundant grace” and built a legacy that included ensuring veterans access to health care, improving educational opportunities, helping farmers share expertise, and strengthening national security, especially missile defense.

“He hired the first African-American congressional staffer to work in a Mississippi office since Reconstruction and steadily advocated for Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” the Kentucky Republican said in a statement. 

President Donald Trump said on Twitter he was “very sad” to hear the death of “my friend” Cochran, calling him a “real senator with incredible values.”

Cochran’s health had been an issue in recent years, with people on and off Capitol Hill speculating in hushed tones about why he had lost a step. 

He came closer than expected to losing bid for a seventh term in 2014, when state Sen. Chris McDaniel got the most votes in a Republican primary. But Cochran was able to prevail in a runoff election, drawing Democratic support because of his long record of bringing home federal spending to Mississippi, which has the nation’s poorest population.

Those efforts had become more difficult in the years before his retirement, with the old-school ways of the Appropriations Committee falling out of favor. Individual spending bills have rarely moved through the Senate, despite proclamations from Republican and Democratic leaders alike about their importance.

Appropriators have also faced a moratorium on earmarking, the practice of prescribing funding for particular projects in lawmakers’ home states. Cochran accepted the ban, but he would undoubtedly have rather continued the practice, holding the view that he and his staff would know more about Mississippi than Washington bureaucrats ever could.

Cochran was succeeded in the Senate by Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith, who went on to win a special election last fall for the remaining two years of his term. 

Cochran’s first wife, Rose, died in December 2014 after a long battle with dementia, shortly after the senator won his last re-election. They had two children. 

The following year, he married Kay Webber, a member of his staff since 1981, who was also a longtime companion.

Cochran and his most recent Senate colleague, Roger Wicker, have the same hometown — they were born 14 years apart in Pontotoc, a town of 5,000 in the northern Mississippi. Cochran and his family later settled near Jackson, the state capital.

Cochran’s father was a school principal, and his mother was a math teacher. He was a standout in high school: valedictorian of his class, a Boy Scout leader, a member of the 4-H Club, and an athlete lettering in football, basketball, baseball and tennis.

At the University of Mississippi, Cochran was a fraternity president and cheerleader who was four years ahead of Trent Lott, who would later be a congressional colleague and political rival.

In law school, Cochran got a Rotary fellowship to study international law at Trinity College in Dublin. He joined a Jackson law firm after finishing up his law degree at Ole Miss and was made partner in less than three years. He won election to the Senate a decade before Lott, but by 1995, Lott had rushed ahead of Cochran to become the Republican whip.

When Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas resigned to focus on his 1996 presidential campaign, the two Mississippians battled each other for the leadership job. Lott won easily, 44-8, but over the long run, it would be Cochran who would have the staying power. 

“All our citizens have the right to be heard and to have a voice in their government,” Cochran said in his farewell to the Senate. “I believe our job as their servants is not to tell others what to think or tell others what to do. Our job is to represent them. I have endeavored to do that the best way I possibly could.”

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