Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran will run for re-election in 2014 -- making the veteran Republican a top target for conservative groups as he seeks a seventh term.
Cochran already faced a primary challenge from conservative state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who was swiftly endorsed by the influential Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund after he announced his candidacy this fall. As the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, Cochran has been far from the favorite of those who want to slash government spending. And in a conservative state like Mississippi, more conservative GOP groups see a prime chance to replace Cochran with a champion of their own.
"Sen. Cochran has had a long and distinguished career representing the people of Mississippi. I look forward to a positive campaign based on the future of our state, our country and the Republican Party,” McDaniel said in a statement. “As a strong conservative, I will fight to bring those values to Washington.”
The Mississippi Republican's decision was first reported by Roll Call and the senator confirmed it in an interview with Gannett newspapers. His Senate spokesman confirmed Cochran's decision to NBC News.
The pressure on Cochran from his right is even more pronounced in a reliably Republican state like Mississippi, where the GOP primary can sometimes serve as a de-facto general election.
“Throughout his over forty years in Washington, Senator Thad Cochran has done some good things for Mississippi, but he’s also done some bad things. He voted to bail out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, voted repeatedly to raise the debt limit by trillions of dollars, and even voted against a resolution that stated Congress has a “moral obligation” to cut spending,” said Club for Growth President Chris Chocola. “Senator Cochran has also voted to confirm liberal Supreme Court Justices and is a strong supporter of wasteful earmarks – something that is opposed by Republican leaders in both the Senate and the House. Mississippi voters will make the final judgment as to whether it is time for a change.”
Cochran, who will turn 76 tomorrow, had appeared to waiver on whether he wanted to run again. He missed his self-imposed end of November deadline to make a decision, and his meager fundraising of just $53,000 in the third quarter didn't make it look like he was thinking about re-election. Many GOP observers, both in Washington, D.C., and Mississippi, expected he would retire, but his thinking seemed to have changed in the past few weeks.
The veteran lawmaker likely still has the upperhand in the June 2014 primary. Still seen as popular in the Magnolia State, Cochran was first elected to the U.S. House in 1972 before winning his Senate seat in 1978 and has been easily re-elected since.
Other statewide officials had said they would consider running if Cochran stepped aside, but his decision to run likely sets up a showdown with McDaniel, and may give Tea Party groups their best chance to knock off one of the GOP establishment. SCF and CFG's political arms have already run television ads, praising him as a new conservative leader. McDaniel drew criticism for addressing a neo-Confederate group earlier this year.
"Our members in Mississippi like Chris McDaniel because he will fight to stop the massive spending, bailouts, and debt that are destroying our country," said SCF Executive Director Matt Hoskins. "We're going to do everything we can to help him get his message out so voters know they have a choice."