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.
• 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.
• 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.