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Mississippi Voices: Cochran's tea party challenger

 

Wyatt Emmerich

 

The race between Chris McDaniel and Thad Cochran for U.S. senator is crystallizing Mississippi's great political irony. 

 

Mississippi is one of the most conservative states in the nation, yet it receives the most federal aid. We are the ultimate welfare state. 

 

For decades, this little irony was swept under the rug. Our politicians would talk about cutting federal spending one day and boast about bringing home the pork the next. 

 

With the scary ballooning of federal debt and the rise of the tea party, the McDaniel-Cochran race is finally forcing the issue. Mississippi voters are going to have to decide -- is it ideology or pork they prefer. 

 

Used to be a candidate like McDaniel couldn't raise the money to rock the boat. This has changed. There are a half dozen deep-pocketed national tea party PACs and they love McDaniel.  

 

This has struck fear in the hearts of the state Republican Party establishment and the McDaniel-Cochran race is capturing national attention. 

 

Cochran's recent comment that "the tea party is something I don't really know a lot about," added fuel to the fire. There are a lot of tea party sympathizers in our state and they don't cotton to being ignored. 

 

A few years ago, Sen. Cochran, as chairman of the Senate appropriations committee, brought home a boatload of money for Mississippi. Many movers and shakers in the state considered him a godsend. 

 

Your greatest strength is the flipside of your greatest weakness. Cochran became the poster child for pork-laden earmarks and irresponsible politically-based spending. 

 

Cochran's supporters have been quick to expose the weak flipside to McDaniel's ideological purity. They are running ads implying McDaniel would have voted against $10.5 billion in Katrina aid. In an interview, McDaniel said, "That's not an easy vote to cast," even though the Senate approved the aid without a single dissenting vote. 

 

For the hundreds of thousands of Mississippians made desperate by the hurricane's devastation, that's not likely to sit too well, even though nine years later it appears much of the money was wasted and mishandled. The Gulfport port expansion has gone nowhere and the coast now has numerous multi-million-dollar, state-of-the-art water and sewage systems operating at minimal capacity. 

 

As usual, the Cochran TV ad takes McDaniel out of context. McDaniel later said he supports true disaster aid but not necessarily all the economic development money that came with it. In any case, McDaniel was correct in stating he couldn't answer the question of how he would have voted because he never had a chance to study the Katrina relief legislation. 

 

Joe Sanderson, CEO of Sanderson Farms and Cochran's state finance chairman, called me up last week to express his firm opinion about the impracticality of right-wing ideological purity. 

 

Sanderson has built his company into a $2.5 billion success story employing 12,000 people. His opinion should be heeded. 

 

"I have a unique perspective on the Katrina deal," Sanderson told me. "I was vice chairman of Gov. Barbour's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal. I was one of three serving under Jim Barksdale. I went to the coast multiple times. I held 10 or 12 town hall meetings on behalf of the commission where people could vent and talk and tell what had happened to them and what they needed. I was responsible for the counties other than the three on the Gulf Coast. 

 

"I toured the Gulf Coast with the highway patrol multiple times. I sat with the 30 members of the commission. I saw what the governor was doing and what Sen. Cochran was doing. And for Chris to say that would be a hard vote is the craziest thing I have ever heard in my life. 

 

"Politics has always involved compromise," Sanderson continued. "It involves getting along with other people. You don't just represent a small pocket of people. You represent all of the state and all of the people." 

 

So there we have it. A giant rift in the Mississippi Republican Party, reflecting a giant rift nationally. What to do? Are the Republicans too ideological or not ideological enough? What good is ideology if you lack the power to make a difference? 

 

In terms of using government money to get votes, it's hard to imagine the Republicans outdoing the Democrats. That is their forte. 

 

If you look at the two top Republican state leaders -- Tate Reeves and Phil Bryant -- they have thrown their lot with the ideological tea partiers in all areas except economic development incentives. Reeves and Bryant are leaving a billion dollars a year on the table of federal Medicaid expansion money. That is a huge bet on ideology over practicality. 

 

The feds are planning to drastically cut back on hospital reimbursements for treating uninsured patients. The Medicaid expansion is supposed to replace those funds. But with Mississippi saying no to the expansion, hospitals will soon be hurting big time. The political pressure will be immense. 

 

Why is Mississippi so ideological? As the recipient of so much welfare, we see up close and personal what it does to damage the work ethic and moral fabric of our state. 

 

In my experience, practicality always trumps ideology, until things get so bad there is a tipping point. This election will be a good indicator if we are there yet. 

 

 

 

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