So the rumors were true. Politico reported in December that Cochran might retire early next year.

And now it’s early next year, and here we are.

He’ll end up eight months shy of 40 full years in the Senate. Tom Cotton, the junior senator next door in Arkansas, was one year old when Cochran was first sworn in.

U.S. Senator Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, today announced his intention to resign from the U.S. Senate effective April 1, 2018.

“I regret my health has become an ongoing challenge. I intend to fulfill my responsibilities and commitments to the people of Mississippi and the Senate through the completion of the 2018 appropriations cycle, after which I will formally retire from the U.S. Senate.

“It has been a great honor to serve the people of Mississippi and our country. I’ve done my best to make decisions in the best interests of our nation, and my beloved state. My top concern has always been my constituents in Mississippi. My hope is by making this announcement now, a smooth transition can be ensured so their voice will continue to be heard in Washington, D.C. My efforts, and those of my staff, to assist them will continue and transfer to my successor.”

His health has been an “ongoing challenge” for a long time, dating back at least to his last reelection bid to the Senate in 2014. Take three minutes and read my post from October about the sad state of Cochran’s condition. He seemed disoriented at times on the campaign trail four years ago but the Republican establishment despised his tea-party challenger, Chris McDaniel, and saw Cochran as the only man in Mississippi capable of holding him off. So they dragged him around the state, keeping him away from voters at times to shield him from scrutiny, and it paid off — for them. After losing to McDaniel in the first round of the primaries, Cochran squeaked through the runoff 51/49, allegedly with help from black Democratic voters who preferred the feeble establishmentarian to the right-wing firebrand. He was reelected in the fall in deep-red Mississippi, of course, and then sent back to the Capitol, where he’s been known to need help … finding the Senate chamber. Finally, at age 80, he’ll be able to rest.

That means both Senate seats in Mississippi are suddenly on the menu this fall. The state’s other senator, Roger Wicker, is up for reelection to begin with and is being challenged in the primary by — you guessed it — Chris McDaniel, back for another shot. Is McDaniel going to stick with that race, knowing from painful experience how hard it is to unseat an incumbent, or will he now switch to the race for Cochran’s open seat? He hasn’t ruled out the latter:

Liberals are suddenly excited too about a longshot pick-up attempt:

Right, but presumably the Mississippi GOP won’t decide to nominate a garbage candidate like the Alabama GOP did. The way this works is that the governor of Mississippi, Phil Bryant, will appoint a temporary replacement for Cochran to fill his seat until the special election in November chooses a permanent successor. Ideally Bryant would choose someone who plans to run for the vacancy himself this fall, as the appointee will enjoy a bit of an advantage in name recognition once he’s sworn in. And all the better, of course, if the appointee *already* has name recognition throughout the state, as that might mean an easy victory in the special election. Are there any Republicans like that in Mississippi? Mitch McConnell knows one!

Mississippi GOP Gov. Phil Bryant will select Cochran’s replacement. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has urged Bryant to appoint himself, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

Bryant’s just 63 years old, won his two races for governor with 60+ percent of the vote, and is term-limited and therefore unable to run again once his current term expires in 2020. Conceivably he’d hold the seat without difficulty in November if he appoints himself now. Best of all from McConnell’s standpoint, he’d also be a bulwark against McDaniel, who himself has built enough of a brand in Mississippi that he might capture Cochran’s vacant seat unless McConnell can throw someone formidable in his path. Bryant — or maybe Haley Barbour, who’s 71? — is just what the doctor ordered for the Republican establishment. Stay tuned.