Thad Cochran, a courtly Mississippi Republican who cultivated his constituents for 45 years as a congressman and United States senator with traditional catfish fries, Southern charm and billions of dollars in federal pork-barrel largess, died on Thursday in Oxford, Miss. He was 81.
His death was confirmed by the office of Senator Cindy Hyde Smith, who replaced him in the Senate after he resigned in 2018 because of health issues. The cause was not specified.
With his homespun politics, moderation on racial issues and business-oriented conservatism, Mr. Cochran may have seemed out of place on the modern Washington merry-go-round. But he outlasted almost everyone, winning three terms in the House of Representatives (1972-78) and seven in the Senate (1978-2018).
With more than two years remaining in his last term, Mr. Cochran resigned on April 1, 2018. His 45-year tenure was the longest of any currently serving member of Congress. His 39 years in the Senate was the 10th-longest stretch in history, and he was that body’s third longest-serving incumbent, behind only Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Orrin G. Hatch of Utah.
Mr. Cochran never lost a general election. He narrowly won his first House race, but was easily re-elected twice. In most of his Senate races he swamped his opponents; he was unopposed twice and did not even face a serious challenger for decades until 2014, when he was beaten in a primary that was so close, it required a runoff. He won the runoff and the general election for his seventh term.
Mr. Cochran derived most of his power from 37 years on the Senate Appropriations Committee, which has jurisdiction over all discretionary government spending, and from several terms as its chairman, perches that gave him enormous authority to allocate funds and to bring home special projects for his state, often called pork-barrel spending.
He occasionally made national headlines. After Donald J. Trump became president in 2017, Mr. Cochran recommended a military spending appropriation of $581 billion for fiscal 2018 — $15 billion more than Mr. Trump’s request — and $65 billion for overseas contingency operations. He also urged action to avert government shutdowns and to provide relief for regions hit by hurricanes and wildfires.
But the appropriations that made news back home were those that counted with the electorate — money that, through his influence, went to Mississippi’s Gulf Coast ports, universities, public schools, agriculture, airports, highways, bridges, health centers, fire and police departments, and more, including catfish research.
In Mr. Cochran’s rarefied world of discretionary spending, billions moved like nickels. It is hard to estimate the vast sums he helped funnel into his state over decades. His Senate biography notes that in one cause alone in 2005 he “spearheaded the effort to provide more than $87 billion in supplemental assistance to Mississippi and Gulf Coast states devastated by Hurricane Katrina.”
A Mississippi watchdog group, Citizens Against Government Waste, called Mr. Cochran the “King of Earmarks” in 2010, saying he had pushed $490 billion in pork-barrel projects, the most in the nation. In public finance, earmarks are items in an appropriations bill that direct funds to a specific recipient, circumventing competitive, merit-based allocation processes.
While back home Senator Cochran was known for his catfish fries for voters, in Washington he was a catfish-farm booster. Mississippi leads the nation in catfish production. His bills protected the industry from Asian rivals. Mississippi State University’s Thad Cochran National Warmwater Aquaculture Center (for research) is one of many public works bearing his name.
“The longer I’ve been there, the more I appreciate the seniority system,” Mr. Cochran said at a rally in Jackson, the capital, during his last hurrah in 2014. “It has benefited our state in a lot of ways.”
A complete obituary will appear soon.