In Mississippi Vote, Pork Barrel Politics Is a Hard Sell

By: John McCormick

There was a time when it was a good thing for a politician to bring home the bacon, or in the case of U.S. Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the shrimp. In today’s divided Republican Party, it can get you in hot water.

That’s where Cochran, 76, finds himself as he faces Tea Party-aligned challenger Chris McDaniel, 41, a state senator who has criticized the six-term incumbent’s federal spending largess, even as many of the dollars flowed back to Mississippi.

The $25 million Thad Cochran Marine Aquaculture Center in Ocean Springs, Mississippi — which operates research and education programs and includes shrimp, blue crab and red snapper — is the sort of beneficiary of federal dollars called into question in a Republican primary that will help show how the party defines itself going forward.

“To bring projects home with borrowed money that our children are going to have to pay back strikes me as problematic,” McDaniel said in an interview in Jackson, the state’s capitol. “For every project, or piece of pork, that comes to Mississippi, thousands of others go to other states and at some point we have to recognize that our trajectory is not sustainable.”

Similar dynamics are playing out in other U.S. Senate races, with six of the 12 Republican incumbents up for re-election this year facing primary challengers, most allied with the limited government Tea Party movement.

Party Unease

The situation unnerves some Republicans who worry intra-party fights could result in losses to Democrats, as was the case in 2012 when Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana lost a primary fight to a Tea Party-backed candidate who then lost the general election to Democrat Joe Donnelly. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to take control of the Senate.

Federal spending is the centerpiece of McDaniel’s campaign. In his October candidacy announcement, he declared that the “era of big spending is over.”

Cochran, who declined an interview request, has directed plenty of federal spending to Mississippi. The stateranked second nationally — behind New Mexico — for federal spending received per taxes paid in an analysis released in 2007 by the Washington-based Tax Foundation, a nonprofit that favors a simpler tax system.

The incumbent’s ability to do so has earned him near legendary status in Washington and at home; in Mississippi, his name appears on at least one building or complex at or near each of the state’s three major universities. Besides the aquaculture center, there’s the Thad Cochran Research Center at the University of Mississippi and the Thad Cochran Research, Technology and Economic Development Park adjacent to the campus of Mississippi State University, among others.

‘Benefit Greatly’

“Senator Cochran believes a critical part of his job is to ensure Mississippi is treated fairly by the federal government,” Jordan Russell, his campaign spokesman, said in a statement. “Our universities, military bases, and infrastructure benefit greatly from Senator Cochran’s influential position in the U.S. Senate.”

A former Appropriations Committee chairman, Cochran was ranked in 2010 as the top requester of now-banned home state spending projects known as earmarks by the nonpartisan Washington-based Citizens Against Government Waste. The group recorded his total that year as $490 million.

Cochran could reclaim the appropriations chairmanship, which would heighten his clout in allocating federal spending, should Republicans gain the Senate majority.

Polling Figures

Cochran has served more than four decades in Congress — he was a House member before winning his Senate seat — and even his supporters say he’s vulnerable in an environment where Americans have lost confidence in Washington and are showing in polls an openness to remove incumbents in November. In a Washington Post/ABC News Jan. 26 poll, only 27 percent of Americans said they were inclined to re-elect their representatives in Congress.

The June 3 primary will most likely determine the Senate race’s ultimate outcome in Mississippi, where 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won 55.5 percent of the vote and Cochran hasn’t had a serious challenge since 1984 — when the movie “Ghostbusters” topped the new release charts. Democrats are also watching the primary closely, although no major candidates from that party have announced plans to run.

“The right Democrat could beat Senator McDaniel in a general election,” said Hob Bryan, a Democratic state senator. “I like Chris fine, but his political views are more extreme than most Mississippians. I don’t think there’s any major Democratic candidate who would want to challenge Senator Cochran.”

Tea Party Groups

Tea Party organizations backing McDaniel have made the race a priority. The Club for Growth, a Washington-based group that favors federal spending cuts, is backing McDaniel, as are the Washington-based small-government advocates FreedomWorks and the Madison Project.

To counter those forces, a group of Republicans have formed a super-political action committee called Mississippi Conservatives that can raise and spend unlimited amounts on campaign messages.

It has started running an ad attacking McDaniel on Mississippi television stations, painting him as lacking conviction.

“Who is Chris McDaniel?” a narrator asks. “He’s whoever he needs to be.”

The super-PAC’s leaders include Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committee member and the nephew of former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour.

Serious Threat

“We take the race very seriously,” he said. “Senator Cochran is able to get things done in Washington that wouldn’t get done otherwise. He’s a statesman. He’s not divisive. And that’s a contrast with McDaniel.”

Joe Sanderson, chief executive officer for Laurel, Mississippi-based Sanderson Farms, serves as Cochran’s campaign finance chairman. He’s the sort of individual who could, in a single check, finance the super-PAC’s budget.

Barbour declined to say how much the group aims to spend on Cochran’s behalf.

To counter McDaniel’s criticism of Cochran, the super-PAC is pointing to spending projects the state senator has voted for in bonding bills.

“He has voted to fund dozens of museums and pet projects in Mississippi bond issues,” Barbour said.

Countering Criticism

McDaniel said he also has opposed some of the proposals, and that it’s a specious argument to compare federal deficit spending with states exercising their bonding authority.

Providing some political cover for Cochran is the endorsement he’s received from Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, a Tea Party favorite.

Stacey Pickering, the state’s auditor and another Republican backing Cochran, said the involvement of outside groups on McDaniel’s behalf will turn off some voters and motivate donors to give to the super-PAC.

“Folks don’t take kindly to being told what to do by folks who don’t live here and do business here,” said Pickering. “I do think you will see businesses and business leaders step up.”

McDaniel raised $561,279 during the fourth quarter of 2013, including a $100,000 personal loan. He had $390,794 in his campaign account as January began. That was more than the $339,865 Cochran raised during the quarter, although the incumbent had $1.1 million in his campaign account.

The clash between Cochran and McDaniel is also generational. Asked if he intends to make an issue of Cochran’s age, McDaniel said he favors term limits.

“I want Senator Cochran to come debate me and be at his very best, his sharpest, his most intellectual and I want that debate to take place over these ideas that affect the future of this party and this country,” he said. “I pray for health, I hope he’s fine and I look forward to seeing him down the campaign trail somewhere.”

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