Meet Thad Cochran, An Endangered Senate Republican
Policy + Politics

Meet Thad Cochran, An Endangered Senate Republican

REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

There was a time when lawmakers boasted to their constituents about bringing home the bacon. Legendary figures like the late Rep. Jamie Whitten of Mississippi, Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii showered their states with federal funds for highways, bridges, schools and courthouses that often times bore their names.

Those times have changed, and now longtime pork-barrel specialists are more apt to have to apologize to their constituents for winning costly projects for their states than take a bow.

Related: Congress Packs Defense Bills with Millions in Pork

The latest case in point is Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi — a powerful figure on the Senate Appropriations Committee who over the decades brought literally billions of dollars of largess to his home state. 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.

In 2006, Cochran was selected by Time as one of "America's 10 Best Senators." He was labeled "the Quiet Persuader" for his role in winning money for the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Cochran managed to extract $29 billion, or almost double the money that President George W. Bush and congressional leaders had initially pledged. Cochran had threatened to derail a defense appropriations bill unless it included funding for installations on the Gulf Coast.

While many Mississippians might rejoice in this show of spending might in Washington, old-style pork barrel spending is a serious issue among fiscal conservatives and Tea Party members. They blame senior appropriators like Cochran for driving the federal debt well beyond $17 trillion and for fostering irresponsible budget practices.

The snowy-thatched Cochran, 76, the most senior Republican on the Appropriations Committee and popular fixture on Capitol Hill, is arguably one of the most endangered Senate Republican up for reelection this year. While the GOP has its best chance in years of winning back control of the Senate, three longtime veterans — Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY), Pat Roberts (KS) and Cochran — have drawn aggressive primary challenges from Tea Party adherents.

Related: The ‘New and Improved’ Ted Cruz Infuriates His Colleagues Again   

Cochran’s opponent in a June 3 primary showdown, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, hopes to follow the lead of freshman Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and go to Washington to rattle the china in Congress.

“If we’re able to defeat Thad Cochran in this primary race — he’s been there 41 years — do you know the shock waves it’ll send through the system?” McDaniel told an audience of about 100 at the University of Mississippi last month, according to Politico. “We have to shake the establishment.”

The matchup is pitting McDaniel, a dyed in the wool fiscal and social conservative who enjoys backing from the Club for Growth and other outside conservative groups, against Cochran, a traditional conservative Republican who actually admitted that he doesn’t know very much about the Tea Party.

Related: What Tea Party Republicans Can Learn from Liberal Democrats    

"I'm just running my campaign based on my qualifications to continue to serve as a United States senator," Cochran said late December in announcing that he would seek a seventh term.

Leaving nothing to chance, Cochran has lined up endorsements from some of the biggest names in Mississippi politics — including former Gov. Haley Barbour and former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott — and business leaders. He also recruited Kirk Sims, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant’s chief of staff, as his campaign manager and recently began rolling out TV ads. 

Among the handful of conservative activists challenging sitting senators this year, McDaniel reportedly is the only one to receive the unanimous support of all the powerful outside groups that fuel campaigns on the right.

The 41-year-old hard-charging lawyer said the tea party remark shows that Cochran is out of touch with people who support low taxes and limited government. "The Tea Party matters. They care for their country," McDaniel told The Associated Press. "These are conservative voters who feel like they're not being heard."

McDaniel has made federal spending the centerpiece of his campaign. Last October, in announcing he was challenging Cochran, he declared that the “era of big spending is over.” In that regard, he is trying to exploit a growing fissure within the GOP between the far right’s antipathy to spending and special interest projects and the more traditional go-along-to-get-along ethos of Cochran and other more traditional congressional appropriators.

Related: Boehner Under Siege from Conservative Groups

In an interview on Tuesday, Cruz sought to differentiate the Tea Party’s world view on spending from that of the GOP old guard. He said that during his campaign for Senate last year, he was frequently asked at forums, “Can we count on you to bring home the bacon?”

“And the answer I gave voters in Texas during the campaign was, ‘If you are looking for someone to go to Washington and maximize the pork brought home to our state, you got the wrong guy. Because if 535 members of Congress all do that, that’s how we bankrupt this country.”

Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, who fended off a Tea Party challenge in the Republican primary a week ago, offers a somewhat contrary view. While he began by saying that “fiscal responsibility is something sadly lacking here in Washington,” and will hurt future generations, he acknowledged the importance of lawmakers looking out for their states.

Related: Tea Party Texans’ Primary Results—a Mixed Bag

He noted that former Texas Republican senator Phil Gramm, a fiscal conservative, “famously said . . . that if the federal government is going to be divvying up green cheese, then he’s going to make sure Texas gets its share.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, another veteran GOP lawmaker who overcame a Tea Party primary challenge last year, added that it would be catastrophic for Mississippi, with all its economic problems, to lose Cochran’s representation in Congress.    

Analysts agree it will be a hard fought primary; but more recently, some have said the race is tilting in Cochran’s favor.  

The reason for that? “Mainly because Mississippi voters, even the ones who participate in a GOP primary, understand the value of Cochran's seniority to a small poor state,” said Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist who is tracking the race. “And Cochran's voting record is mainly quite conservative.”

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