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Ailing Republican senator's resignation jolts political world

Sen. Thad Cochran's (R-Miss.) retirement announcement knocks over a series of dominoes.
U.S. Sen Thad Cochran looks on during a campaign rally on June 23, 2014 in Jackson, Mississippi.
U.S. Sen Thad Cochran looks on during a campaign rally on June 23, 2014 in Jackson, Mississippi.

It's no secret that Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) has been ailing over the last several months, and yesterday, the Mississippi Republican conceded that his ill health is forcing him from Capitol Hill. Cochran will resign at the end of the month,

And this, in turn, will knock over a series of dominoes.

The early departure clears the way for Gov. Phil Bryant, a fellow Republican, to appoint an interim successor -- perhaps Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves -- and sets up a special election on Nov. 6. It also raises the possibility that State Sen. Chris McDaniel, who announced a primary challenge to Republican Sen. Roger Wicker last week, will switch races to take on Bryant's pick.It seems likely that Chris McDaniel, who narrowly lost a primary challenge to Thad Cochran in 2014, will end his primary campaign against Wicker, since it would probably be easier for the far-right state lawmaker to win an open-seat Senate contest than to defeat an incumbent senator who enjoys the GOP's institutional support.

But the statewide special election poses its own challenges. Yes, Mississippi is unmistakably a red state where Republicans tend to dominate, but the special election field is likely to be large. If no one candidate wins a majority on Nov. 6, the top two candidates will advance to a runoff, regardless of party affiliation.

And that unusual system opens the door to unexpected developments. Former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy (D), for example, intends to run for this Senate seat, and he's likely to have the kind of resources needed to run a credible campaign. Complicating matters, Chris McDaniel has plenty of detractors in Republican politics -- including Senate GOP leaders who'd prefer not to see him win.

If this dynamic sounds kind of familiar, we saw similar circumstances late last year in the neighboring state of Alabama, where there was a Senate special election featuring a high-profile Republican extremist, who wasn't popular with the party establishment.

If memory serves, that race turned out pretty well for Democrats.

To be sure, the smart money says Republicans will keep this seat. But Cochran's mid-term retirement adds an unwelcome complication for the majority GOP, which suddenly has to deal with an open-seat contest featuring a right-wing insurgent the party would prefer to see lose.

Postscript: Also keep an eye on state House Minority Leader David Baria (D), who recently launched a campaign against Wicker, after McDaniel launched his primary challenge. With Wicker out, Baria may decide he, too, would have a better chance of success in an open-seat contest.