Cochran to resign from Senate next month

Sen. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranMississippi courthouse named for Thad Cochran Todd Young in talks about chairing Senate GOP campaign arm US farming cannot afford to continue to fall behind MORE (R-Miss.) on Monday said he plans to resign from the Senate next month due to health issues.

His exit puts a key committee gavel up for grabs and will likely trigger a fierce intraparty fight back in his home state to succeed him.

Cochran, 80, in a statement said his health was an “ongoing challenge” and he wanted to step down with enough time to ensure a “smooth transition” to his successor.

“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.

He will resign his seat on April 1, according to his office.

Cochran’s future had been the subject of speculation for months.

He missed votes late last year after being diagnosed with a urinary tract infection; his office said doctors advised him to stay in Mississippi and recover. He subsequently was absent in December after having an outpatient procedure related to a nonmelanoma lesion on his nose.

Cochran was first elected to the Senate in 1978 after serving three terms in the House. At the time, he was the first Republican elected statewide in Mississippi in more than 100 years.

“Thad knows there’s a big difference between making a fuss and making a difference. And the people of Mississippi — and our whole nation — have benefited from his steady determination to do the latter,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's 12:30 Report Republican strategist: Trump is 'driven by ego' Senate GOP campaign arm asking Trump to endorse McSally in Arizona: report MORE (R-Ky.) said in a statement. 

Cochran’s resignation also opens up the influential Appropriations Committee gavel, responsible for crafting government funding legislation. Congress has to pass a mammoth funding bill by March 23, roughly a week before Cochran will step down. 

Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyRand Paul delivers Putin letter from Trump Senators privately met foreign allies to reassure them of NATO support Senate clears 4B ‘minibus’ spending measure MORE (R-Ala.) is next in line for the job, and he is widely expected to assume control of the panel. Shelby shepherded the committee during Cochran’s recent absences.

Shelby played coy after Cochran's announcement, refusing to say if he expects to be the next chairman but making it apparent that he's interested. 

"It's an important committee. I've been on it a long time. I would hope I would have that opportunity," he said. 

Who will succeed Cochran in his Senate seat is significantly less clear.

Under Mississippi election law, a special election will be held in November for the remainder of Cochran’s term, which runs through 2020. If no one receives 50 percent of the vote, the top two candidates would then compete in a run off.

Until then, GOP Gov. Phil Bryant can fill a temporary replacement, meaning the seat will stay in Republican hands for now.

Bryant hailed Cochran as a “powerful advocate for every Mississippian” but did not offer any details on a potential replacement.

McConnell has reportedly urged Bryant to appoint himself to the seat. But sources close to the governor told The Clarion-Ledger earlier this year that the governor was not interested in it.  

By opening up another seat, Cochran’s announcement could scramble the reelection race of the state’s other senator, Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerMississippi courthouse named for Thad Cochran GOP senators introduce resolution endorsing ICE Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers eye ban on Chinese surveillance cameras | DOJ walks back link between fraud case, OPM breach | GOP senators question Google on Gmail data | FCC under pressure to delay Sinclair merger review MORE (R).

Chris McDaniel, a conservative who lost a primary bid against Cochran in 2014, announced last week that he would challenge Wicker in the GOP primary.

McDaniel on Monday refused to rule out the prospect of dropping his campaign against Wicker and instead filing to run for the open seat.

"I am currently focused on my campaign against Roger Wicker, but all options remain on the table as we determine the best way to ensure that Mississippi elects conservatives to the United States Senate," he said.  

McDaniel would likely have a better shot in an open field instead of against an incumbent like Wicker. 

Still, it’s likely McDaniel would face fierce pushback from establishment Republicans, which he made the chief antagonist of his political career.

Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to McConnell, has referred to McDaniel as a “Mississippi Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreEx-Sheriff David Clarke describes how he would have stopped anti-fascists in 1930s Germany on 'Who is America' The Hill's Morning Report — Trump to GOP: I will carry you GOP strategist: Trump will be anchor around Republicans' necks in general election MORE”— referring to the failed GOP Alabama Senate candidate who was accused of pursuing relationships with teenage girls when he was in his 30s. 

In the 2014 fight, McDaniel accused Cochran’s campaign of convincing African-American Democrats to vote in the primary for Cochran, while McDaniel supporters sparked a controversy by publishing pictures of Cochran's wife in a nursing home.

Mississippi is a deeply red state, giving Republicans a decided advantage in the upcoming election. A Democrat hasn’t held one of the state’s two Senate seats since the 1980s.

Bryant has two options in the wake of Cochran’s resignation: He can give a promising candidate a boost with an appointment to the seat, or he can choose someone who isn't interested in serving the full term as a caretaker.

It appears unlikely that Bryant would appoint a caretaker to the seat, given the national party’s concerns about McDaniel jumping into the race.

Two early candidates for the seat are Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann.

Reeves is just 43 years old but has a long career in statewide office. He won an election to be the state treasurer when he was 30, serving in that position for eight years before a successful campaign for lieutenant governor. 

Hosemann, 70, has served as the secretary of state for more than a decade and is also one of the top Republican statewide officeholders.

Rep. Gregg HarperGregory (Gregg) Livingston HarperBipartisan leaders of House panel press drug companies on opioid crisis Republican chairman wants FTC to review mergers of drug price negotiators Lawmakers press Apple, Google on data collection MORE's (R-Miss.) name had been previously floated in local news reports as a possible replacement for Cochran if he were to resign. But Harper announced his own impending retirement after his current term, and it's unclear whether the opening in the Senate would prompt him to reconsider.

Ben Kamisar contributed.