Mississippi Runoff a Generational and Philosophical Battle

On the surface, the runoff for the Mississippi GOP Senate nomination on Tuesday between state Senator Chris McDaniel and six-term incumbent Thad Cochran appears to be a clash between populism and traditionalism -- the Tea Party vs. the "Establishment." But the fight being joined in the Magnolia State resists such easy labeling simply because the battle lines are so starkly drawn.

There is a generational aspect to the race that goes beyond the fact that Cochran is 76 and McDaniel is 41. Cochran represents the old guard of the Republican Party whose notions of conservative governance are being relentlessly challenged by McDaniel and those who back him. The challenge is nationwide and it hardly matters that Tea Party candidates haven't won every race. Those thousands of volunteers who flocked to campaigns in Kentucky, Virginia, Iowa, and many other states are exerting influence and are slowly changing the core philosophy of the Republican Party.

Cochran is an old-fashioned politician who believes it's his job to bring federal dollars back to his state. In this, he's been hugely successful over the 36 years he has been in office. There's hardly a county in Mississippi that hasn't benefited from Cochran's single-minded reliance on pork-barrel politics. Schools, hospitals, health  clinics, roads, bridges, post offices, old folks' homes -- tens of billions of dollars to give the residents of his state what he saw as a decent quality of life.

But what have all those billions actually done for the citizens of Mississippi? When Cochran became the first Republican senator elected from Mississippi since Reconstruction in 1978, it was the poorest state in the union and ranked dead last in almost every category relating to economics, education, and income.

Today, Mississippi still ranks dead last in income, poverty rate, life expectancy, and four other metrics. It is second to last in percentage of high school graduates, infant mortality rates, and obesity, and is ranked 48 in "well being." All those schools, all those hospitals and clinics, all that money -- and the people of his state are hardly better off than they were when he took office.

Mississippi is ranked fifth in federal tax dollars spent per capita. The state budget is more dependent on federal money than any other state is. Washington -- with Cochran's help and support -- has lavished tax money on Mississippi only to see their efforts end in total failure.

It appears that something more than cash from Washington will be needed if Mississippi is ever going to become something more than a basket case. Cochran obviously doesn't see that, while Mr. McDaniel does.

Or does he? Earlier this month, in response to heavy criticism from the old guard and education advocates in Mississippi, McDaniel trimmed his sails a bit and now says Mississippi should accept federal funding for primary and secondary education.

From the Clarion-Ledger:

U.S. Senate candidate Chris McDaniel has changed his statements about federal school funding in the past two weeks, after coming under sharp criticism from former Gov. Haley Barbour and state education leaders.

Barbour and other critics say McDaniel has dangerous ideas that could rob billions of dollars from one of the poorest states in the nation.

McDaniel, a tea party-backed state senator from Ellisville, is trying to unseat six-term U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran in a Republican primary runoff Tuesday.

McDaniel told The Associated Press in April that Mississippi could afford to forego federal funding for elementary and secondary schools. He now says Mississippi should take federal money.

"We don't want to hurt public education, but we don't believe it's best dictated to us by Washington, D.C.," McDaniel said Thursday night at a campaign rally in Madison.

Cochran has said repeatedly that the federal government should help finance education but should not dictate policy.

Politics as usual? McDaniel has run into the political reality that one man's wasteful spending is another's bread and butter. Where philosophy meets the practical mechanics of politics, something usually has to give. In this case, McDaniel made the logical choice to give ground to keep his opponent from initiating a potent line of attack.