The year 1978 marked the end of one era in Mississippi politics and the beginning of the next. After a thirty-seven-year tenure in the US Senate, Democrat James O. Eastland retired. His successor was Thad Cochran, who won the election for Eastland’s seat with a plurality of the votes. Cochran became the first Mississippi Republican in one hundred years to be elected to a statewide office.
William Thad Cochran was born on 7 December 1937 in Pontotoc. His father, William Holmes Cochran, was a school principal, while his mother, Emma Grace Cochran, taught in Pontotoc, Tippah, and Hinds Counties. After attending public schools, Thad Cochran graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1959 with bachelor’s degree in psychology. After two years in the US Navy, Cochran enrolled in the University of Mississippi School of Law. He was admitted to the bar in 1965 and started practice in Jackson.
By that time, Cochran had already been involved in politics for more than a decade. In 1951 he had helped his mother deliver tabloids for the Paul B. Johnson Jr. campaign for governor. In 1967 he appeared on television for the first time to endorse Fred Thomas for Hinds County sheriff. A year later, Cochran became the executive director of Mississippi Citizens for Nixon-Agnew. Presidential candidate George Wallace won the Magnolia State in 1968, but the GOP was on the rise in the South. With the leftward turn of the national Democratic Party, the strong conservative voting bloc in the region increasingly turned its allegiance to the Republicans.
In 1972 Cochran profited from this change in voting patterns. Democratic incumbent Charles Griffin of Mississippi’s 4th Congressional District decided not to run for reelection, and Cochran narrowly defeated Democratic state senator Ellis Bodron for the seat. Republican Trent Lott was also elected to the House from Mississippi’s Fifth District, marking what state GOP chair Clarke Reed described as “the birth of the two-party system in Mississippi.”
Cochran remained in the House until 1978, when he won election to the US Senate. He served on the Rules Committee, the Ethics Committee, and the Judiciary Committee, and he chaired the Senate Republican Conference; the Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee; and the powerful Appropriations Committee. As a senator, he reflected the South’s changing political culture. “With his broad shoulders, silver hair, and deep, drawling voice, Thad Cochran seems a paragon of the old-fashioned Southern politician,” Time reported in 1984. “He is not. . . . A boosterish supporter of Reaganomics, Cochran is less conservative on civil rights and funding for public education.” By the standards of southern Republicanism, Cochran’s voting record can be considered fairly moderate. He supported the extension of the Voting Rights Act and the creation of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. In 2006 Cochran backed a bill to provide for human embryonic stem cell research. Nonetheless, on most issues he aligned himself with the conservative forces on Capitol Hill.
Although Cochran’s political style differed significantly from that of his predecessor, both he and Eastland shunned the political limelight. But Cochran’s unassuming appearance belied his effectiveness as a power broker. He became an expert on farm policy and arranged funding for numerous research and military projects in his home state. After Hurricane Katrina wrecked the Mississippi Gulf Coast in August 2005, Cochran played an important role in securing funds for the region’s recovery. “He doesn’t get a whole lot of play in terms of coverage,” said one Republican colleague, “but he is effectively stubborn doing what needs to be done.”
In 2014 Cochran won reelection to a seventh term in the Senate after a tough primary fight against Tea Party favorite Chris McDaniel. Citing health problems, Cochran resigned from the senate in 2018. He died in 2019 at age 81.
- Earl Black and Merle Black, The Rise of Southern Republicans (2005)
- Jere Nash and Andy Taggart, Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power, 1976–2006 (2006)
- Time (29 October 1984, 14 April 2006)