Cochran died Thursday at age 81, just over a year after retiring. "I'm optimistic about the future of our great nation," a notably feeble Cochran had said during his farewell speech on the Senate floor in March 2018. He was the 10th longest-serving U.S. senator.
He served 45 years in Washington, with the first six years in the House and the rest in the Senate. He became known the "Quiet Persuader," cultivating loyalty and respect from his staff and from politicians inside and outside his home state.
Cochran, who served in the Navy, died at a veterans' nursing home in Oxford, Mississippi, said his final chief of staff, Brad White. "I've never known a more powerful man, nor a more humble man — a true Southern gentleman that loved the great state of Mississippi," White said.
President Donald Trump said on Twitter, "He was a real Senator with incredible values — even flew back to Senate from Mississippi for important Healthcare Vote when he was desperately ill." Cochran was an attorney in private practice when he was elected to the U.S. House in 1972. Winning a Senate seat in 1978, he became the first Republican since Reconstruction to win statewide office in Mississippi.
He led the Appropriations Committee in 2005-06, channeling more than $100 billion to Mississippi and other Gulf Coast states for Hurricane Katrina recovery after the 2005 storm, and regained the committee chairmanship in January 2015, when the GOP again took control of the Senate.
Cochran won reelection in 2014, but announced in 2018 that he was retiring because of his health. Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi said Thursday that Cochran was "a dear personal friend for decades."
"Thad Cochran was a giant in the United States Senate and one of the greatest champions Mississippi has ever known," said Wicker, who has served in the Senate since 2007. "When Thad Cochran left the Senate, I was reminded of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wrote, 'Lives of great men all remind us we can make our lives sublime, and departing leave behind us footprints on the sands of time,' Wicker said.
Cochran was a big practitioner of earmarks — home-state goodies such as highway projects, economic development grants and university research dollars. GOP leaders banned earmarking, but Cochran backed Navy shipbuilding efforts in 2015. Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, which makes Navy ships, has long been one of Mississippi's largest private employers.
Known for working across party lines, Cochran traveled the globe with Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont. "I have never had a closer friend in the Senate," said Leahy, who has served since 1975 and is vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
Cochran struggled in 2014 amid a Republican primary challenge from state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a tea party favorite who had financial support from libertarian-leaning national groups that criticized Cochran as a big spender.
Cochran ran that year in part because Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and other establishment Republicans wanted to continue having pragmatic Southerners in the Senate and to put McDaniel and those like him at a disadvantage.
The campaign turned ugly when McDaniel's supporters photographed Cochran's bedridden wife, without permission, in the nursing home where she had lived a dozen years with dementia. Images of Rose Cochran were posted briefly online in a video that suggested Cochran was having an inappropriate relationship with one of his longtime staff members, Kay Webber — an accusation that Cochran denied.
Weeks after four men were arrested and charged in the photo case, Cochran placed second, behind McDaniel, in a three-person Republican primary. During a runoff campaign, Cochran sought support from a wide variety of voters, including African Americans who traditionally vote Democratic. Cochran defeated McDaniel in the runoff and won the November 2014 general election.
Rose Cochran died in December 2014. On May 23, 2015, Thad Cochran married Webber in a small ceremony in Gulfport, Mississippi. McConnell noted Thursday that Cochran hired the first African American staff member to work in a Mississippi congressional office since Reconstruction, and that he was an advocate for historically black colleges and universities.
"Sen. Cochran ... believed deeply in equality and human dignity," McConnell said. "And on a personal level, Thad's generous and respectful spirit left a positive impact on everyone who knew him and everyone whom he served."
When Cochran retired, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant appointed the state's Republican Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith to temporarily succeed him. Hyde-Smith was inaugurated in April 2018, then won a special election in November to complete the six-year term that expires in January 2021.
Associated Press reporter Andrew Taylor in Washington contributed to this story.