Longtime GOP Sen. Thad Cochran dies at 81

Former Sen. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranBottom line Bottom line Alabama zeroes in on Richard Shelby's future MORE (R-Miss.), who served in Congress for more than 45 years, died early Thursday morning at the age of 81.

Cochran, who served most recently as the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, resigned from the Senate in April 2018 because of health concerns, which he described at the time as an "ongoing challenge." 

He passed away peacefully in Oxford, Miss., according to a statement from former aides Brad White and Chris Gallegos. 

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"Cochran’s family extends its gratitude for the support shown to the Senator by Mississippians over the years," they said in the statement. 

Cochran was known in the Senate for his quiet, polite and gentle demeanor in the Senate, where his colleagues described him as a "quintessentially Southern gentleman." He was dubbed the "quiet persuader" in 2006 by Time.

"Some people say that Thad Cochran is the last true southern gentleman, and I think theres's a lot of truth to that. Some people say that he represents the lost art of being nice," Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyCrypto debate set to return in force Press: Why is Mo Brooks still in the House? Eshoo urges Pelosi to amend infrastructure bill's 'problematic' crypto regulation language MORE (R-Ala.), who succeeded Cochran as Appropriations Committee chairman, said after Cochran's retirement announcement last year. 

During his farewell address to the Mississippi senator, Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerCEOs urge Congress to raise debt limit or risk 'avoidable crisis' If .5 trillion 'infrastructure' bill fails, it's bye-bye for an increasingly unpopular Biden The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Schumer: Dem unity will happen eventually; Newsom prevails MORE (D-N.Y.) joked about Cochran's tendency to eschew the press, calling it one of their "differences." 

"The chairman once said: 'I don't call a lot of news conferences. I just don't see that as a necessary part of my responsibilities.' Well, we will agree to disagree on that one," said Schumer, who is known for his media-friendly personality.

In addition to the Appropriations Committee, Cochran also served as the chairman of the Agriculture Committee during his Senate tenure. Both panels offered Cochran plum spots for wielding power, and millions in federal dollars, back to his home state. 

A biography of Cochran, sent out Thursday but crafted while he was still in office, also touts his work on Mississippi-focused issues like the National Flood Insurance Program and disaster aid recovery, as well as work on education and defense legislation. 

Mississippi Sen. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerTop Republican: General told senators he opposed Afghanistan withdrawal NY Democrat tests positive for COVID-19 in latest House breakthrough case Florida Democrat becomes latest breakthrough COVID-19 case in House MORE (R), who served with Cochran, praised him on Thursday as a "giant in the United States Senate." 

"Thad Cochran was a giant in the United States Senate and one of the greatest champions Mississippi has ever known. ... I am grateful and honored to have known him, learned from him, and been his friend. America is a better country because of Thad Cochran," Wicker said in a statement. 

Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntGOP hopes spending traps derail Biden agenda A tale of two chambers: Trump's power holds in House, wanes in Senate The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by AT&T - Senate passes infrastructure bill, budget resolution; Cuomo resigns MORE (R-Mo.), who worked with Cochran on the Appropriations Committee, added that he "was a great person to work with and always a gentleman. He was, without question, one of the most impactful senators in agricultural policy in the last hundred years."

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.

He faced a nasty primary challenge in 2014 against conservative firebrand Chris McDaniel, which Cochran ultimately won. His first wife, Rose Cochran, died weeks after he won reelection.

Cochran married Kay Webber, a longtime aide, in 2015. 

But Cochran's political future became a point of speculation in the year leading up to his retirement, and he announced in March 2018 that he would step down. 

He missed votes in 2017 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 said during his farewell speech that was returning to his "beloved Mississippi," but gave an optimistic prognosis for the future of the country and Congress. 

"I trust if your travels bring you to Oxford, Miss., you will not hesitate to visit and join me for a refreshment on the porch," Cochran said to his colleagues from the Senate floor. "We can listen to the mockingbirds together."

Updated at 12:14 p.m.