Mississippi goes for the money

The New York TimesJune 26, 2014 

 

ROBERT ARIAIL

Mississippi has sent us a message. I believe it boils down to: We Want Our Stuff.

Big election night! As you no doubt have heard, Sen. Thad Cochran, a Republican who specializes in sending billions of dollars in federal pork back into his state, defeated a tea party challenger who ran against government spending.

It wasn’t easy. Cochran’s fierce and energetic opponent, Chris McDaniel, forced him into a primary runoff. To survive, Cochran turned to Democrats, who took advantage of Mississippi’s open primary laws and tossed Thad a vote. Or at least turned out to give McDaniel a kick in the shin.

"We are not prone to surrender, we Mississippians," McDaniel declaimed once the results were announced. "A strong and sturdy people we are. A brave people we are!" He appeared to either be planning to demand an investigation or try out for a role in the next Hobbit sequel.

"Those guys are not good losers," mused Curtis Wilkie, a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi.

The runoff was kind of fascinating. Cochran, who is something less than a fireball orator, rambled on at one event about his childhood visits to a farm and doing "all kinds of indecent things with animals." One of the many, many political action committees involved in the campaign put that in a McDaniel ad, along with a rant about Obamacare and a demand that voters "tell Thad Cochran you’re no farm animal."

Meanwhile, McDaniel got support on the stump from former "Dating Game" host Chuck Woolery and the parents from the reality show "19 Kids and Counting." I am not sure how all these thoughts merge together, but as you can see, it was way more interesting than your average Senate primary.

These days, when a Republican politician gets into primary trouble, his first move is usually to leap farther right, assuring voters that he is capable of being even angrier and crazier than his opponent. That’s what gives the Tea Party its power. To use a zombie metaphor - and who among us does not love a zombie metaphor? - the tea party (Dead But Undead) wins not by killing its opponents but by turning them into drooling, staggering replicas of itself.

Cochran is plenty conservative on most issues, except the one the tea party  cares most about. He’s a true believer in the power of the federal government to use tax dollars to improve the lives of its citizens. He spreads a wide net, from cotton subsidies to food stamps to military contracts to special education in public schools.

Instead of racing to the right, Cochran ran on his talents as a collector of federal money. When Mississippians turned on their TVs, there was former Sen. Trent Lott, warning voters that without Cochran, Mississippi might lose the Stennis Space Center. Or football hero Brett Favre, reminding people that Cochran got them a ton of help for rebuilding after Katrina. Or an announcer thanking Thad for "our aerospace industry, shipbuilding, military bases, research and development, agricultural breakthroughs."

Nobody came straight out and said: "Look, Mississippi gets three bucks back from the federal government for every dollar we send in. Don’t kill the golden goose." But the message was pretty clear, and in some ways a little revolutionary.

Like voters in many poor, conservative states, Mississippians have spent decades happily deluding themselves that they’re victims of Washington rather than its top beneficiaries. You could argue that Cochran staged an intervention for his state’s residents, in which he pierced, at least temporarily, their veil of denial.

McDaniel played right into the old fantasy world, assuring voters that they could eliminate federal spending on education, which amounts to a quarter of Mississippi’s public school budget, without suffering any financial damage. He seemed shocked when it didn’t work. In his refuse-to-concede speech, he denounced Cochran for "once again, reaching across the aisle" – a practice he seems to find as offensive as federal aid to education.

McDaniel blamed his defeat on "liberal Democrats." Actually, most of Cochran’s support came from Republicans, but because he won by less than 7,000 votes, you could definitely argue that Democratic Mississippians - most of whom are black - were the ones who saved his bacon.

"First time in my life I ever voted in a Republican primary," said Wilkie, 73.

Cochran will almost certainly be re-elected in November. When he gets back to Washington he’ll be 77, starting a new six-year term. With nothing to lose and scores to settle. Really, he could do anything. March in a gay pride parade. Announce that an angel had appeared to him in a dream and told him that God wants us to increase the gas tax to combat global warming.

Or at least maybe someday, if the president needs a vote, Cochran will remember who gave him a hand, and return the favor. 

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