Questions About Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran’s Health Fuel Fight for Soul of Republican Party

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 14: U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) speaks at 'Making AIDS History: A Roadmap for Ending the Epidemic' at the Hart Senate Building on June 14, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images)
Paul Morigi/Getty Images

Senator Thad Cochran’s (R-MS) continued absences from Washington have reignited long-standing concerns over his physical health — and set up the possibility that both seats in the United States Senate from Mississippi, currently held by establishment Republican allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), could be up for grabs in 2018.

Mississippi’s junior senator, Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), will almost certainly be challenged by a conservative candidate in the June 2018 Mississippi Republican U.S. Senate primary.

His most likely opponent is State Senator Chris McDaniel, who narrowly lost the June 2014 Mississippi Republican U.S. Senate primary to Cochran.

“State Sen. Chris McDaniel is inching closer to a 2018 bid against U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, spurred on in part by meetings this week with former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon,” Mississippi Today reported on September 27, the day after Bannon-supported Judge Roy Moore won a convincing primary victory for the Republican nomination over establishment favorite Senator Luther Strange (R-AL):

“I’m still undecided, but that victory (by Roy Moore in Alabama) last night makes the 2018 race much more compelling,” McDaniel told Mississippi Today.

“Steve and these individuals are very patient and experienced people,” McDaniel continued. “They’re not the type of individuals who seek rushed decisions. When we’ve discussed my political future, they’ve encouraged me to make the right decisions for the movement.”

McDaniel met with Bannon Monday night in Alabama, where Bannon helped construct a runaway anti-establishment victory for Moore over incumbent Republican Sen. Luther Strange.

Conservatives have been convinced for three years that the Mississippi Republican establishment machine, led by longtime party boss Haley Barbour, stole that 2014 Republican primary runoff from McDaniel and handed it to Cochran.

At the time, questions about Senator Cochran’s mental and physical health were widespread in Mississippi.

Many conservatives argued that Cochran was being propped up by aides in order to fulfill the duties of his office.

Now, in October 2017, Cochran’s continued absences from Washington have brought those concerns back to the front of the Mississippi political agenda.

On Friday, Politico reported that “The Mississippi senator has been recovering the past several weeks from a urological procedure. And concern is growing on and off Capitol Hill over whether the 79-year-old lawmaker will return to work on Monday when the Senate comes back from recess — not to mention how long he’ll be able to continue leading a high-profile committee or even remain in the Senate.”

The Politico story had much more to say about the problems surrounding the health of the soon-to-be octogenarian senior senator from Mississippi:

Multiple sources close to the senator said his staff and allies have received limited information from his family about his health status, further fueling questions about his future.

Cochran’s office maintains that the Mississippi Republican will return next week as planned, and Senate Republican aides said they expect him back as well. But several K Street sources and Cochran allies said he’s unlikely to be back next week. Multiple sources said there’s increasing worry his absence could stretch through the end of the year.

Cochran is slated to oversee an Appropriations Committee markup on Thursday.

Cochran missed the last two weeks that the Senate was in session. Any further absence would cause major problems for Senate Republicans.

President Trump helped fuel the controversy surrounding Cochran’s health two weeks ago “with a mysterious tweet on the health care debate that claimed one ‘Yes vote’ was in the hospital.”

“Reporters scrambled on Twitter to figure out which senator he was describing. Turns out, it was an apparent reference to Mississippi Republican Sen. Thad Cochran, 79, who is in his home state recuperating from a ‘urological issue.’ A source close to Cochran confirmed that he has been out of Washington all week,” Fox News reported at the time.

In the event Cochran resigns from office before his term ends in January 2021, Mississippi law states that a replacement will be appointed by the governor.

Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, would make that appointment if Cochran were to resign before January 2019, the end of Bryant’s second term. Governors are limited to two terms in office in Mississippi.

Mississippi is one of thirty-four states where “the governor makes an appointment to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy until the next regularly-scheduled general election. At that point, a candidate is elected and serves for the remainder of the unexpired term, if any.”

In fact, in 2007, it was an appointment by Mississippi’s then-Gov. Haley Barbour that first placed the junior senator from Mississippi, Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) — also an establishment Republican — into the selective club of 100 members of the U.S. Senate when former Senator Trent Lott resigned with five years left in his six-year term.

Wicker was elected in the November 2008 special election to complete the remaining four years of Lott’s six-year term.

He was re-elected to a complete six-year term in the U.S. Senate in 2012 but faces a likely conservative Republican challenge from former State Senator Chris McDaniel in the June 2018 Republican primary.

Most political analysts consider Mississippi a safely Republican state.

There is little doubt that Mississippi will be one of the major battlegrounds in the fight for the soul of the Republican Party in 2018, as conservatives try to unseat Wicker in the June 2018 primary.

The only question remaining is just how big of a battleground Mississippi will be.

Should Cochran resign in the near future and both Republican Senate seats are in play, both sides — the establishment politicians aligned with Majority Leader McConnell and the economic nationalist conservative/populist coalition aligned with Breitbart executive chairman and former chief White House strategist Steve Bannon — are certain to pull out all the stops to achieve a double-barreled victory in Mississippi.


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