Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Old lion Cochran squares off against Tea Party upstart McDaniel again June 24 - Pork Barrel politics on trial in the Deep South


(U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss.)

The kind of internecine warfare that once only Democrats engaged in has now become political reality within the Republican Party, certainly in Mississippi this week as establishment incumbent U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran battled Tea Party upstart Chris McDaniel to a draw Tuesday and rematch scheduled for June 24.

It was a bloody battle that featured both Cochran and McDaniel firing the political equivalent of tomahawk missiles on the airways, a McDaniel supporter apparently unaffiliated with the campaign alleged to have photographed Cochran’s ailing wife in a nursing home to fuel rumors about the senator's fidelity, and both sides bringing in GOP heavyweights to sway voters.

Cochran, 76, a U.S. senator since 1979 who previously served five years in the U.S. House, is the last of a long tradition of Mississippi senators and congressmen who set records for longevity by bringing home the bacon to the nation’s poorest state. It’s a legacy that included giants like the late John Stennis (41 years in the U.S. Senate), Jamie Whitten (53 years in the U.S. House), and G. V. “Sonny” Montgomery (30 years in the U.S. House), and one that nearly got Cochran defeated in the first round.

Jamie Whitten, called the “King of Pork Barrel” during his heyday, used to brag with a big grin on his face that “pork barrel” is only when it is in someone else’s district. Meanwhile, he raked in the federal dough for projects like the $2 billion Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway along the Mississippi-Alabama border. Stennis, Whitten, and Montgomery were as conservative as any politician in Washington at the height of their careers and despite their Democratic Party affiliation. Cochran has strong conservative bona fides himself, but that means nothing to the anti-federal government, anti-spending Tea Partyers.

McDaniel, a state senator who enjoyed the endorsements of high-profile right-wingers like Sarah Palin, has been called by some a last hope for a Tea Party that suffered losses in North Carolina, Georgia and Kentucky.  If he wins the runoff, he’ll face Democratic challenger and former congressman Travis Childers, who is hardly less conservative than Republicans in his state and more of a throwback to the day when all politicians in Mississippi were Democrats and nearly all of them were arch-conservative.

Jackson Free Press editor-in-chief Donna Ladd says progressives don’t really have a dog in the Mississippi race, but she sees times changing. In a column for The Guardian this week, she pointed out that under-30 voters in Mississippi led the South in voting for Democrat John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election. The demographics are changing, she said, in Mississippi and across the South, yet “our politicos seem to still believe that the only people who vote in our state are white wingnuts and religious zealots who spread hate rather than love of their neighbors.”

Cochran is also bearer of another old tradition in Mississippi politics—the old truism that one of the state’s U.S. senators should be a gentleman and the other a sonofabitch. Stennis was considered the gentleman and the late U.S. Sen. James O. Eastland, well, the other during their long service together in the 1950s and 1960s. During the 1990s, Cochran was the gentleman while former Republican U.S. Sen. Trent Lott was the other.

However, Cochran’s gentile, quiet-spoken manner almost did him in during this last campaign, the hardest he has had to fight in decades. He was late gearing up for the battle with McDaniel and often seemed distracted even after it got underway.

No doubt his handlers are working super hard in his corner right now. I can almost hear what they’re telling him:

“Okay, champ, you’re even in the count now, but you gotta reach deep inside and find the moxie to beat that sonofabitch in the next round!”

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