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Ex-Sen. Thad Cochran: A Mississippian of Consequence Who Made History

Ex-Sen. Thad Cochran: A Mississippian of Consequence Who Made History
(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Friday, 31 May 2019 06:34 AM Current | Bio | Archive

News Monday that Mississippi’s former Republican Sen. Thad Cochran died at 81 stimulated a rush of memories through the mind of this reporter.

There was Byram, Mississippi, lawyer Cochran in 1972, who at 37 became one of the first three Republicans from Mississippi to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.

An honors graduate of the University of Mississippi Law School and U.S. Navy veteran, Cochran cast his first vote for John F. Kennedy for president in 1960. 

Although his father-in-law was Democratic National Committeeman from Mississippi, Cochran began to have doubts about the Democratic Party because, as he put it, “you couldn’t be a ‘Mississippi Democrat’ and think that was any different from being a ‘national Democrat.’ So I just thought the whole thing was crazy.”

Cochran became a Republican and in 1968, he headed the Mississippi Richard Nixon presidential campaign.    

In the race for the Jackson-area U.S. House seat in 1972, platoons of eager young volunteers would wipe windshields of cars and leave a note saying “We hope you see your way clear to vote for Thad Cochran.” 

Supporters of Democratic State Sen. Ellis Bodron, who was blind, charged that the Cochran campaign was being invidious in urging voters to “see your way clear.”

“Nobody campaigns against a fellow because he is blind,” recalled then-state GOP Finance Chairman Billy Mounger, “Thad, incensed at such an accusation, was energized to campaign more forcefully and positively.” He won with 45 percent of the vote, beating Bodron by about 5,000 votes.

First-time candidate Cochran was always grateful to then-Vice President Spiro Agnew for stumping for him — so much so that in May, 1995, long after Agnew was disgraced and forced to resign amid reports he had taken kickbacks while governor of Maryland, then-Sen. Cochran attended the dedication of his bust in the U.S. Capitol.

In 1978, Rep. Cochran became the Magnolia State’s first-ever Republican senator and the first Republican ever to win a statewide office.  Following his re-election over Democratic former Gov. William Winter in 1984, Cochran never had to worry about re-elections until his final campaign.

That was in 2014, when Cochran — then 76 and in failing health — made his last trip to the polls.  This time, the opposition was in the Republican Party and the opponent was charismatic, Tea Party-backed State Sen. Chris McDaniel.

McDaniel slammed the incumbent for everything from the federal spending that had ballooned while he was chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee to his vote to confirm former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R.-Neb. as secretary of defense in spite of Hagel’s stormy relations with Israel. 

McDaniel and Cochran went down to the wire in a primary.  In the resultant runoff, Cochran’s campaign team rallied rural supporters who benefited from the former Senate Agriculture Committee chairman’s emphasis on farm issues.

Cochran won a photo-finish by just 6,400 votes--two percent of the vote.  An angry McDaniel charged that he was a victim of “voter irregularities” and that people who historically never voted in Republican primaries put Cochran over the top. 

He was referring to the strong cross-over of black voters.  In contrast to many Southern Republicans, Cochran had embraced civil rights legislation, always campaigned hard in black areas, and backed the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.

Recalling how he had helped them with small business loans and straightened out problems with their Social Security checks, black voters turned out heavily for the senator so many simply called “my friend.”

“Senator Cochran won in 2014 because of his many years serving all of Mississippi, white and black alike, in an incredibly effective manner,” Mississippi’s Republican National Committeeman and Cochran strategist Henry Barbour told Newsmax, “People counted on him and were willing to turn out in record numbers for a Republican primary to make sure Mississippi benefited from his serving as Chairman of the Appropriations Committee.”

Last April, his health in sharp decline, Cochran resigned. Once again, his action triggered something historic: the appointment of fellow Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith as Mississippi’s first woman U.S. Senator.

In recalling Cochran, many conservatives will condemn his embrace of earmarks the 2010 report from Citizens Against Government Waste that the Mississippian had requested $490 million in earmarks (government programs designed to benefit a specific recipient) in his career or his steadfast support of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

But former stalwart conservative and six-term State Rep. Ken Stribling may have put the late senator in perspective best.

“Even though I was more conservative than Sen. Cochran” Stribling told us, “I always tried to pattern my legislative service after his way of serving. I called myself  a ‘Thad Cochran Republican’.  He was a great statesman and a great Mississippian. And he was my friend.”

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.

© 2019 Newsmax. All rights reserved.

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News Monday that Mississippi's former Republican Sen. Thad Cochran died at 81 stimulated a rush of memories through the mind of this reporter.
cochran, mississippi, kennedy, agnew, mcdaniel
Friday, 31 May 2019 06:34 AM
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