The traditional benchmark for a federal politician's success is his ability to deliver projects (read: federal money) for the people back home. In Mississippi, still gripped in the throes of Tea Party fever, veteran Sen. Thad Cochran's success in that regard is seen as a negative. Careful what you wish for, voters.
Politico has an extended look at Cochran's upcoming Republican primary, in which he's being challenged for his seat by state senator Chris McDaniel. McDaniel, you may remember, was last in the news for his appearances at meetings of pro-secessionist, pro-Confederacy groups.
As the race has developed, McDaniel's gone after Cochran hard. "The brash state lawmaker," Politico reports, "trashes Cochran’s record as an appropriator for their poor home state as a travesty of spending and debt." McDaniel told an audience at one appearance, "I'm not going to do anything for you. I'm going to get the government off your back, then I’m gonna let you do it for yourself."
In the abstract, that sounds fine, sure. In practical terms, it's trickier. Mississippi is consistently one of the most lopsided recipients of federal money in terms of how much it pays in taxes. In 2012, the state took in $3.07 in federal spending for every $1 it sent to Washington — a figure topped by only four other states.
Data from Transparency.gov and the IRS.
A more direct example of how Mississippi has benefitted from federal spending is seen in the response to Hurricane Katrina. Mississippi got $5.5 billion in relief after the 2005 storm — $872 million of which was still unspent as of last September. Time dubbed Cochran "the quiet persuader" for his ability to navigate the big funding package past Senate conservatives.
Asked about that example, McDaniel was wishy-washy. "I probably would have supported it, but I don’t know enough about it," he said. "That’s just it."
He also refused to say if he would join Cochran's push to delay increases in flood insurance premiums, set to go up after years of being far too low for the government's costs. (Which, as we noted yesterday, resulted in a massive bailout after Hurricane Sandy.) "The people of the coast have come to depend upon [flood insurance], to a certain extent," McDaniel said. "That’s not to say that, at some point, we don’t need some spending reform down there." (Flood insurance coverage is mandatory if you're in a designated flood zone.)
In other words, McDaniel dislikes the concept of federal spending locally, and embraces the concept of people taking charge of their own lives. That much of government spending in Mississippi is in the form of food and social programs, often the sorts of things where people specifically can't "do it for [themselves]," is beside the rhetorical point.
Which is why McDaniel and other conservatives jumped on comments Cochran made on a local television program on Monday. As the Clarion Ledger describes the comments:
“The tea party, you know, is something I don’t really know a lot about,” says Cochran, 76, who’s seeking a seventh six-year term in the Senate. “And it’s a free country. We have open opportunities for people to participate in the election process.”
Wrong thing to say. A November 2013 poll showed Cochran leading McDaniel by 6 points, but the senator trailing "someone more conservative" by 20 points. At the time, half of the state hadn't heard of McDaniel. That has changed by now, and McDaniel is inextricable from the Tea Party label, which is inextricable from hard-right conservatism.
The rhetoric, however hazy in practice, has shifted against Cochran. And if Mississippi voters elect someone to go to Washington and change that $2.07 in profit the state sees from its federal tax dollars into a break-even: that may be exactly what they get.