Veteran Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi on Tuesday barely overcame a vigorous challenge from a Tea Party candidate in a bitterly fought GOP runoff in which voter self-interest appeared to trump ideology.
Cochran, 76, who has spent the past 40 years delivering tens of billions of dollars in federal aid and projects to his poverty-stricken state, scored a razor-thin victory over Chris McDaniel, an archconservative state lawmaker and former radio talk show host.
The grueling, costly campaign ultimately boiled down to this simple question: Did Mississippi Republicans want to keep Cochran in Washington revving up the government-spending machine on their behalf? On the other hand, would they replace him with a fresh-faced Tea Party champion totally lacking in seniority and determined to turn off the federal spending spigot? Voters by a narrow margin decided to stick with Cochran after flirting with McDaniel in an inconclusive GOP primary contest June 3. According to preliminary returns last night, Cochran defeated McDaniel by 50.7 percent to 49.3 percent.
In this extremely tight contest, Cochran was helped by a surge of voters in African American precincts, where he had made a last-minute appeal for crossover Democratic support to defeat McDaniel. The New York Times reported that "high numbers" of blacks turned out "despite pledges by conservative political action committees to monitor turnout in Democratic areas targeted by Cochran's campaign."
Cochran will face former Rep. Democratic Rep. Travis Childers in the November general election. Childers is a conservative who opposed Obamacare, gun control and same-sex marriage.
Last night’s outcome was a stinging setback for the Tea Party movement, which only recently celebrated the defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) at the hands of an obscure college economics professor who ran an aggressive populist campaign under the Tea Party banner.
If McDaniel had won last night, it would have been the first time in the 2014 mid-term election campaign that a Tea Party candidate had pushed aside an incumbent Republican senator. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), the number two Republican in the chamber, both fended off Tea Party challenges in their primaries earlier this year.
What may be most galling to McDaniel and his followers is that Cochran overcame long odds to win the runoff by touting the virtues of government spending.
Cochran’s campaign ads hammered home the message that the veteran lawmaker had served as the conduit for much of the federal largesse streaming into their state – and without him that stream could be reduced to a trickle. One ad, called “More For Mississippi,” shows Cochran seated in his living room discussing his past support for “our aerospace industry, shipbuilding, military bases, research and development and agricultural breakthroughs,” according to Politico.
Beyond the critical referendum on government spending, the Mississippi GOP Senate contest was notable for the more than $6.3 million spent overall by the two sides and their allies, the nasty personal exchanges and a bizarre scandal in which four men supporting McDaniel were arrested and charged with illegally entering a nursing home to photograph Cochran’s bedridden wife, who suffers from dementia.
Ironically, Cochran was hurt early in the year by his reputation as the “King of Pork” in the face of a changing political climate in which excessive government spending on behalf of lawmakers’ states and pet interests no longer is considered a virtue. McDaniel charged that Cochran has been in Congress too long and represented a spending philosophy badly out of synch with modern conservative values.
Still, many Mississippians apparently were unwilling to gamble on a new senator who has repeatedly signaled he would not fight for more money for the state.
Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the country and relies heavily on federally funded projects, subsidies and social and health programs, as The Fiscal Times has previously noted. Last year, Mississippi’s median household income was a mere $37,095 and nearly a quarter of the state’s population of 2.9 million live below the poverty level.
About one in five households depends on food stamps, second only to Oregon. And over the years, Mississippi has gotten back about $3 in federal assistance and safety-net programs for every $1 it paid in federal taxes, according to a recent Wallet Hub analysis – a point Cochran and his advisers repeatedly pointed out.
Cochran had not faced a serious challenge since 1984. This year he ran a desultory primary campaign, getting a late start in organizing and raising money and seemingly sleepwalking through events. By the time of the June 3 GOP primary, he was barely able to prevent McDaniel from scoring an outright victory with 50 percent or more of the roughly 300,000 votes cast.
With neither man claiming a majority of the overall vote, Cochran and McDaniel were forced into yesterday’s runoff. But with all of the momentum and excitement going McDaniel’s way, many gave Cochran up for dead.
Last night the voters spoke, and it was Cochran who managed to just squeak by.
This article was updated at 7:30 a.m. on June 25, 2014.
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