Sen. Thad Cochran (R)
Elected: 1978, term expires 2014, 6th term.
Born: Dec. 7, 1937, Pontotoc .
Education: U. of MS, B.A. 1959, J.D. 1965, Rotary Fellow, Trinity Col., Ireland, 1963-64.
Family: Married (Rose); 2 children.
Military career: Navy, 1959-61.
Elected office: U.S. House of Reps., 1972–78.
Professional Career: Practicing atty., 1965–72.
Republican Thad Cochran, Mississippi’s senior senator, was elected to the House in 1972 and the Senate in 1978, where he sits at Jefferson Davis’s old desk. He grew up in small towns in northern Mississippi and near Jackson, the son of a principal and a mathematics teacher. Cochran was extremely athletic in high school and lettered in football, basketball, and baseball. He was also valedictorian of his senior class. Cochran continued to excel academically at Ole Miss, where he was a cheerleader, which was not uncommon for men at that time and was in fact considered an honor. Cochran went on to get a law school degree from Ole Miss. He served in the Navy, spent a year abroad, and then practiced law in Jackson.
|Thad Cochran (R)||766,111||(61%)|
|Erik Fleming (D)||480,915||(39%)|
|Thad Cochran (R)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2002 (85%), 1996 (71%), 1990 (100%), 1984 (61%), 1978 (45%), 1976 House (76%), 1974 House (70%), 1972 House (48%)
In 1968, he worked on the Nixon-Agnew presidential campaign in Mississippi, where Nixon ran third. Four years later, when Nixon was sweeping Mississippi, Cochran ran for Congress and was elected as a Republican from the Jackson-area district with a plurality against a white Democrat and a black independent. When segregationist Sen. James Eastland, a Democrat, retired, Cochran jumped into the race and once again won with a plurality over a white Democrat and a black independent. In the House and in the Senate, he has managed to amass a generally conservative record with little controversy or acrimony. His patrician demeanor, his refusal to engage in racial politics, and his Republican Party label—in a state where most whites have been voting Republican for president for three decades—have made him broadly acceptable to voters at home. His toughest race came in 1984, when he was opposed by popular former Democratic Gov. William Winter. Winter could make a case for himself but not against Cochran. Cochran outraised him $2.7 million to $738,000, and won 61%-39%.
Cochran is the ranking minority member on the Appropriations Committee, and was chairman from 2005 to 2007 when Republicans controlled the Senate. He has also been the ranking member since July 2008 on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, where he has been a key proponent of missile defense, and has worked to fund projects big and small for Mississippi. Timely amendments to appropriations bills that make major policy are a Cochran specialty.
In January 2005, Cochran succeeded Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska as chairman of the full committee, bringing a contrasting style of leadership to that of the grumpy, sometimes-abrasive Stevens. Even Stevens said of Cochran, “He’s less confrontational, perhaps, more deliberate.” Cochran promised to get appropriations bills passed on time, rather than rolling multiple bills into large “omnibus” measures, which had been done in the past when the appropriators could not complete their work on time. Cochran also said, “We’re not going to have runaway spending on the Appropriations Committee when I’m chairman. I won’t tolerate it.” In spite of those assurances, earmarks and runaway discretionary spending were to remain major issues during his stewardship.
In June 2005, Cochran opened the appropriations season by allocating $843 billion to the subcommittees, switching $7 billion from defense to domestic spending. But then came Hurricane Katrina on August 29, which caused massive damage in Mississippi. Keeping tight controls on spending suddenly was not the chairman’s prime concern. Cochran viewed the devastation by helicopter on August 31, and then persuaded the Senate to immediately vote for $10.5 billion in disaster relief. A week later, he persuaded it to vote for $52 billion more. In late October, President George W. Bush called for an additional $17 billion. Cochran, working closely with Republican Gov. Haley Barbour and others in the Mississippi and Louisiana delegations, pushed for $35 billion, with community development block grants available for homeowners and business owners with uninsured losses. This was a new policy, and one not included in the administration request. On December 21, Congress passed a $29 billion bill, with $11.5 billion for CDBG loans and grants. Mississippi received $5.1 billion of the CDBG funds, as Barbour said, “unprecedented amounts of money and unprecedented latitude in how we can spend that money.” In the meantime, work on the regular appropriations bills bogged down, and Cochran and House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., resigned themselves to a continuing resolution for nine appropriations bills they couldn’t get passed.
The following year, 2006, brought more vagaries in the appropriations process in the form of the Bush administration’s request for large amounts of additional money for the war in Iraq. The president asked for a supplemental Iraq funding bill, a proposal sweetened with nearly $20 billion in additional funds for hurricane recovery. Cochran drafted a bill that included some controversial provisions: $700 million for building a CSX rail line inland, to replace the line on the Gulf Coast; $500 million for Northrop Grumman, which was in litigation with the insurers of its Pascagoula shipyard; and $1 billion for Katrina housing. The CSX line was labeled “the railroad to nowhere,” an allusion to the infamous “bridge to nowhere” that Stevens once had slipped into a bill for Alaska. Cochran’s fellow Republicans were among his biggest critics. Speaker Dennis Hastert and House Majority Leader John Boehner called his bill a “special-interest shopping cart,” and conservative Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma tried to kill it. But Cochran prevailed on the Senate floor 50-47. Ultimately, Congress agreed to supplemental spending for Iraq and to $20 billion for Katrina recovery, although it rejected the railroad line.
As Cochran resumed trying to pass the regular appropriations bills on time, earmarked spending came increasingly under fire that year as more conservatives took issue with Congress’s long-standing practice of approving special projects for individual lawmakers, projects that often were not requested by any government agency. Cochran and Lewis managed to get through both chambers just two of the 12 spending bills, those for defense and homeland-security appropriations. Budget hawks raised objections to earmarks in the remaining 10 bills, and GOP Majority Leader Bill Frist declined to bring them to the floor before the November 2006 election. Then Democrats won majorities in both houses. Congress passed a temporary measure to keep the government running, and work ceased on the remaining spending bills. Cochran lost his chairmanship, saying he was “terribly disappointed with the failure of this Congress to have passed the spending bills.”
In 2007, the first year of the Democratic majorities in Congress, the appropriations bills became magnets for anti-war lawmakers. Cochran opposed Democrats’ attempts to set timetables for troop withdrawals in the 2007 Iraq war supplemental spending bill, but his motion to eliminate a timetable was defeated 50-48. Cochran said, “I’m not going to belabor this point, but I think for us to continue to engage in who’s going to win this political struggle about deadlines, forced redeployments … it makes the world wonder whether our country is competent to deal with an emergency that threatens the very security of our country.”
In May 2007, Cochran inserted into an appropriations bill $6 billion in hurricane relief aid to Mississippi and Louisiana and a provision calling for speedy approval of funding for Iraq. He also added to the bills “several items of interest to Mississippi,” including $88 million for Army Corps of Engineers projects in the Yazoo Basin, $7.5 million for the Center for Marine Aquaculture at the University of Southern Mississippi, and $12 million for air traffic control facilities at the Gulfport airport. The watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste put his final earmark tally that year at $892 million. And Cochran continued to wholeheartedly defend earmarks. “Analyses of how the executive branch spends discretionary federal dollars when left to its own devices show that rural states like Mississippi, states that often have a great deal of need, are largely ignored. This is why our founding fathers gave Congress the explicit power to direct spending, so that those who are elected by the people, not bureaucrats, decide how funds are spent,” he said.
The other great area of interest for Cochran is farm legislation. On the Agriculture Committee, he played an important role in shaping the very different 1996, 2002, and 2008 farm bills. In 1996, he supported the Republican initiative to phase out most crop subsidies, although he insisted on maintaining the cotton marketing loan plan that he largely wrote in 1985. In 2002, he supported the strategy of reviving annual crop payments and of vastly increasing the Conservation Reserve Program. In 2005, Cochran defeated on the Senate floor, 53-46, Iowa Republican Charles Grassley’s move to limit subsidies to farmers earning $250,000 or less. “You just can’t change the rules from one year to the next and expect to have a dependable source of revenue to sustain an economy, a farm economy that is so important to the nation,” he said. In 2006, he opposed Bush’s proposed 5% cut in farm subsidies. And in 2008, he supported the farm bill that passed over Bush’s veto. The president said the bill was too costly and did not go far enough to curb farm subsidies.
Also in 2008, Cochran got a new Mississippi partner in the Senate with the arrival of newly appointed Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican. The two quickly teamed up to try to compel Congress to allow federal flood insurance policyholders to add wind coverage to protect themselves financially against future hurricanes. A former U.S. House member, Wicker was appointed by Barbour to replace GOP Sen. Trent Lott, who resigned from Congress. It was a welcome change for Cochran, who had competed with Lott over the years to advance in the leadership and usually wound up losing to him. In 1990, Cochran was elected to the chairmanship of the Senate Republican Conference, the No. 3 leadership position. Although he had less seniority than Cochran, Lott set his sights higher. Rather than wait his turn to move up, Lott challenged Wyoming’s Alan Simpson for majority whip, the No. 2 position. Cochran pointedly endorsed Simpson, but Lott won anyway, with the support of junior Senate conservatives, and leapfrogged over Cochran to the higher-ranking post of whip. Then in 1996, the top job of Senate majority leader came open when Kansas Republican Bob Dole ran for president. Cochran and Lott both entered the race. Lott was able to sew up a majority of votes quickly. Cochran stayed in the contest and lost 44-8.
Some political observers wondered whether Cochran would run for re-election in 2008. In November 2007, he announced that he would. And Lott’s decision to resign at the end of that year dissipated any possibility that Cochran would be seriously challenged. After all, it was much more appealing for high-profile Mississippi Democrats to take on Wicker, who was running for election to the remainder of Lott’s term, than to take on the state’s popular senior senator. Cochran even has friends and defenders among the state’s Democrats. U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, a Mississippi Democrat, said, “I would never encourage anyone to run against Thad Cochran.” His challenger wound up being a former state representative with little money and no paid staff. Cochran spent $2.8 million and won 61%-39%, his closest margin since 1984.
In the presidential contest in 2008, Cochran backed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and his unflattering remarks about Romney’s competitor in the primaries, Arizona Sen. John McCain, were widely quoted in the media. Cochran told the Boston Globe, “The thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine. He’s erratic. He’s hotheaded. He loses his temper, and he worries me.” When McCain ultimately became the party’s nominee, Cochran was conciliatory and called his earlier appraisal of McCain “ill advised.” He added, “I didn’t think he was going to win the nomination either.”
After Democrat Barack Obama defeated McCain, Cochran said, “There are a lot of people coming in with a lot of enthusiasm. We need some people with a little gray hair to help be a calming influence. That is the role I will play.”
In February 2007, Cochran became one of only 28 senators in U.S. history to cast 10,000 votes.