It began as a bruising battle between a veteran Republican senator with a long record of delivering pork to his state and a Tea Party challenger insisting on conservative ideological purity. But next Tuesday’s hard-fought GOP primary battle in Mississippi has veered off in a bizarre direction – with no telling what the outcome will be.
Sen. Thad Cochran, a powerful figure on the Senate Appropriations and Agriculture Committees who over time has steered billions of dollars of federal largess to his home state, is fighting for his political life. Just four years ago, Citizens Against Government Waste dubbed Cochran the “King of Pork” because he had his name on 240 projects worth over $490 million.
But with pork barrel spending falling into disfavor in both parties, Cochran’s Tea Party challenger, 41-year-old state senator Chris McDaniel, says Cochran has been in Congress too long and represents a spending philosophy badly out of synch with conservative values.
Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the U.S. and relies heavily on federally funded projects, subsidies and social and health programs. Last year, Mississippi median household income was a mere $37,095, with nearly a quarter of the state’s population of 2.9 million below the poverty level. About one in five households depends on food stamps, second only to Oregon.
Mississippi and New Mexico are tied for taking back more in federal assistance than providing in taxes, according to one analysis. "Both states take about $3 in federal spending for every $1 contributed in taxes," The Huffington Post reported about a new Wallet Hub analysis. So in some ways it looked as if Mississippi Republican voters would have to choose between ideological purity in siding with McDaniel and economic self-interest in keeping Cochran in the Senate for another six years.
But that was before the primary campaign exploded into a vicious mudslinging affair last week. That occurred after a local political activist and blogger, Clayton Kelly, was arrested on charges that he slipped into a Madison, Miss., nursing home to take a picture of Cochran’s wife – who suffers from progressive dementia – without her permission.
The photo was used for a video Kelly published on his blog that appeared to be part of an effort to spread rumors that Cochran had been carrying on an affair with a long-time Senate aide, according to Business Insider.
Three more people were arrested in connection with the break-in and photo incident at the nursing home, including Mark Mayfield, a lawyer and board member of the Central Mississippi Tea Party, according to a report by The Clarion-Ledger. Since the nursing home incident first surfaced, McDaniel’s campaign has been on the defensive, denying claims it knew in advance about the plot.
Before the scandal broke, McDaniel and Cochran seemed locked in a tight primary battle – with Cochran facing the prospects of being one of the few establishment conservative Republicans to be ousted this primary season. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) easily fended off a Tea Party challenge from Kentucky businessman Matt Bevin last week.
In March, Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn defeated Rep. Steve Stockman (R) and six other GOP candidates in the Texas primary. Veteran Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts is also being challenged in his Republican primary.
With no reliable polling data available in Mississippi, it’s hard to gauge public reaction to the scandal, according to John M. Bruce, a political science professor at the University of Mississippi and an expert on voting behavior. “The question is, among those people who will show up to vote – or who plan to vote but may not now because they become disenchanted – is it a raging issue?” he said in an interview.
“I don’t know,” he added. “That’s the problem with not having much polling data. We really don’t know what’s going on.” But the nature of the contest has changed dramatically.
Early on, the primary battle appeared to focus on whether voters were willing to reward Cochran for his service to the state with a seventh six-year term. There was a time when lawmakers boasted of bringing home the bacon. But that’s changed: Now longtime pork-barrel specialists are more apt to have to apologize to constituents for winning costly projects for their states.
In 2006, Cochran was selected by Time as one of “America's 10 Best Senators.” He was labeled “the Quiet Persuader” forwinning money for the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. He managed to extract $29 billion, or nearly double what President George W. Bush and congressional leaders had first pledged, and threatened to derail a defense appropriations bill unless it included funding for installations on the Gulf Coast.
In February, he made a campaign appearance at a Chamber of Commerce banquet in tiny Pearl, Miss., where local officials and businessmen praised his efforts to steer billions in federal aid to one of the poorest states in the union.
As reported by the Associated Press, the mayor of Pearl ticked off a list of local projects that Cochran had helped to secure with federal funding – including a community center, library, roads and water systems. “Folks, this isn’t pork, and these aren’t roads and bridges to nowhere,” Mayor Brad Rogers said. “These are usable rooms, usable spaces and usable roads that some of you took tonight to get here. These are things that we had to have to make our cities and our country a better place.”
Henry Barbour, a nephew of former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, who is running Mississippi Conservatives, a pro-Cochran super PAC, told The Washington Post last week that Cochran “can just accomplish so much more than Chris McDaniel, and I think people see a contrast in that we know we can count on Senator Cochran.”
Yet Bruce, the University of Mississippi political expert, said he’s skeptical the average voter pays much attention to a lawmaker’s record in bringing federal dollars back to the state. “This is not remotely exclusive to voters in Mississippi – but I think voters are incredibly unaware of what their members of Congress do,” he said.
For his part, McDaniel voices disdain for traditional pork-barrel politics. Back in February, he gave a speech at the University of Mississippi outlining his views. “I’m not going to do anything for you,” he told the young audience,” according to Politico. “I’m going to get the government off your back, and then I’m gonna let you do it for yourself.”
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