If Sen. Thad Cochran retires – some say it could happen as soon as next week – it would likely launch the ultimate game of musical chairs in Mississippi politics.

States choose how to handle vacant U.S. Senate seats, and in Mississippi, the solution in this case would be straightforward: Gov. Phil Bryant would appoint a temporary replacement for the seat, effective immediately, and a special election would be held on Nov. 6, 2018. The winner of that race would serve the remainder of the term through 2020.

Four names lead the field of potential replacements, according to several handicappers: Gov. Phil Bryant himself, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann and U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper.

Thus the game of musical chairs extends from the Governor’s Mansion, through the Capitol and state office buildings to a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Here is a look at potential appointees to fill the U.S. Senate seat if Cochran steps down early:

• Bryant, the 63-year-old governor who is term limited after 2019, was a surrogate for President Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, and the two have remained close.

Trump — who needs Republican allies, particularly in the Senate — would welcome an ally in the Senate who would almost certainly vote in tandem with his policy.

If Bryant appointed himself to the Senate, Reeves would become governor through the current term and would appoint a new lieutenant governor. In this situation, Reeves, who is already mounting a 2019 run for governor, would be eligible to serve for 10 years as governor rather than the constitutional term limit of eight.

• Reeves, the 43-year-old political wunderkind, has already built up a significant war chest for a 2019 gubernatorial run, and he has the political allies, at least in-state, to mount a successful 2018 campaign.

If Reeves were sent to Washington, though, Republicans’ long standing plan for his move to the governor’s mansion in 2019 would likely be spoiled, leaving them with perhaps a tougher outlook against likely Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Hood.

If Bryant appointed Reeves to the Senate, Bryant would then get to appoint a new lieutenant governor to serve out the remainder of the term through 2019.

Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann

• Hosemann, the 70-year-old secretary of state, has the ambition for a seat in Washington. In 1998, he lost a close election for the House of Representatives to then-Transportation Commissioner Ronnie Shows. Hosemann first had to beat out a nine-candidate GOP primary field, and he raised considerably more money than Shows in the general election.

This appointment could also have 2019 ramifications for the state Republican party. Hosemann is considered the Republican front-runner for the lieutenant governor’s race in 2019, but could become the party’s choice for governor if Reeves were called up to the Senate.

If Hosemann were sent to Washington, Bryant would appoint a new secretary of state to serve out the remainder of the term through 2019.

U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Pearl Credit: harper.house.gov

• Harper, the 61-year-old representative from Pearl, has publicly paired himself with Cochran. On the night Cochran defeated Chris McDaniel in the 2014 primary runoff, Harper introduced the senator to the crowd of supporters.

Harper has growing respect on Capitol Hill. As chairman of the House Administration committee, Harper has been a leading voice in reforming how Congress handles sexual harassment claims. Barring a Senate appointment, Harper is expected to run again in 2018 for his House seat, and he has not faced a formidable challenger from either party since he took the seat in 2009.

If Harper were appointed to the Senate, Bryant would have to set a special election for the vacant House seat within 60 days of the appointment. The winner of that special election would have to run in the normal 2018 election cycle, including a June primary and November general election.

As Thad Cochran ages, a legacy – and speculation – grows

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Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.

5 replies on “What happens if Sen. Thad Cochran retires?”

  1. It was Harper from the get go. Of our 3 GOP reps in the state, he is the closest to voting with Bennie Thompson.
    One of his aides left him to work with Cochran a couple years back. In my opinion, it was for the transition of Harper.

  2. Put McDaniel in he should’ve been in the position anyway had it not been for cochrans bs smear and bribe campaign getting Democrat voters to choose their candidate in the republican primaries.

  3. Be real !! Hillbilly Phil going to suck that DEAD HOLE up. Besides WHO ever go will not the power of a toothless hound. The rest of the country doesn’t recognize the state of POOR AS MISSISSIPPI.

  4. Cochran’s last election denied Mississippi’s next Senator a few years of stature and experience on Senate committees, which are critical for Mississippi.

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