By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi announced on Friday that he will run for re-election next year, ending speculation that one of the longest serving Republicans was ready to retire and avoid a Tea Party-backed primary challenge.
"I will run hard and be successful so that I can continue to serve the people of Mississippi and our nation effectively," Cochran, who turns 76 on Saturday, said in a statement issued by his office. Cochran first disclosed his decision earlier in the day in an interview with a Mississippi newspaper.
Cochran faces what may become a highly competitive Republican primary challenge from Mississippi state Senator Chris McDaniel, a favorite of the anti-Washington Tea Party movement.
Cochran is among several Senate Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who face challenges from Tea Party-backed Republican candidates.
Critics complain that these senators have not been conservative enough, particularly in terms of efforts to cut the record federal deficit.
A white-haired southerner with a soft-spoken style, Cochran has shown an ability over the years to obtain federal funds for his relatively poor state.
He won a sixth, six-year term in 2008 with 61 percent of the vote. He was first elected to the Senate in 1978, after six years in the House of Representatives.
Cochran is part of Mississippi's Republican establishment, which appears ready to embrace his re-election bid.
Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the non-partisan Cook Political Report, said: "Cochran starts out as the favorite, but the primary may well be the toughest race of his career."
Many Republicans, including some of his colleagues in Washington, had privately said they had thought Cochran was ready to retire. But McDaniel was among those who said they expected him to make another run for the Senate.
In a statement on Friday, McDaniel praised Cochran's "long and distinguished career" and said he looked forward to "a positive campaign based on the future of our state, our country and the Republican Party. As a strong conservative, I will fight to bring those values to Washington."
(Reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Vicki Allen and Eric Beech)