Pork Is Back on the Table in Mississippi

Republican primary battles have Cochran and Taylor touting their support for now-banned earmarks.

WASHINGTON - JUNE 09: Committee Chairman U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) (L) and Vice Chairman Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS) (R) discuss the proposed 2010 Defense Department budget at a hearing of the Defense Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Capitol Hill on June 9, 2009 in Washington, DC. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and U.S. Navy Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the actions taken there in the next year and a half will show if progress is being made in Afghanistan.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
April 28, 2014, 5:44 p.m.

A fight over ear­marks isn’t un­usu­al in a Re­pub­lic­an primary. Two GOP con­tests in Mis­sis­sippi, however, are flip­ping the usu­al terms of the de­bate.

A pair of Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates — Sen. Thad Co­chran and former Demo­crat­ic con­gress­man-turned-GOP chal­lenger Gene Taylor — are em­bra­cing the now-banned prac­tice some­times labeled pork-bar­rel spend­ing, us­ing it not only to bol­ster their own cam­paigns but to cudgel their foes.

If that seems strange, it should: The Re­pub­lic­an Party has all but driv­en sup­port­ers of ear­marks from its ranks, con­vinced that they’re the hall­mark of politi­cians who don’t ad­here to con­ser­vat­ive prin­ciples.

But Co­chran and Taylor are ar­guing that ear­marks of­fer an es­sen­tial sup­ply of money to cash-strapped Mis­sis­sippi — with each cit­ing the dev­ast­a­tion wrought on the Gulf Coast by Hur­ricane Kat­rina as a prime ex­ample. On the cam­paign trail and in ads, they’re call­ing out their op­pon­ents’ po­s­i­tions by name.

One such ad, pro­duced by a su­per PAC back­ing the long-term in­cum­bent Co­chran, blasts his op­pon­ent, GOP state Sen. Chris McDaniel, for equi­voc­at­ing in an in­ter­view earli­er this year over wheth­er he would have sup­por­ted a fisc­al re­lief bill for the re­gion after the 2005 hur­ricane.

“Chris McDaniel: We just can’t count on him,” a nar­rat­or in­tones, after au­dio of the state sen­at­or’s in­ter­view plays.

The be­gin­ning of the spot touted Co­chran’s own ef­forts to sup­port the le­gis­la­tion and bring money back to the state, set­ting up an­oth­er clear con­trast between the two can­did­ates. (They also have a sub­stan­tial age dif­fer­ence; Co­chran is 76 and McDaniel is 41.)

Taylor, mean­while, has been out­spoken in his cam­paign against Rep. Steven Palazzo, cri­ti­ciz­ing the two-term Re­pub­lic­an in­cum­bent for op­pos­ing a re­lief bill in 2013 for vic­tims of Hur­ricane Sandy. Like Co­chran, Taylor touts his own ef­forts to work with the state’s del­eg­a­tion to pass a re­lief bill after Hur­ricane Kat­rina.

“He ba­sic­ally stuck his fin­ger in their eye,” Taylor said dur­ing the open­ing event of his cam­paign rol­lout in late March, ac­cord­ing to The Mis­sis­sippi Press. “It’s un­be­liev­able that after all we’ve been through, after ask­ing for Kat­rina aid him­self, he would say no to Hur­ricane Sandy vic­tims.”

Co­chran and Taylor come from very dif­fer­ent back­grounds: The six-term sen­at­or and mas­ter ap­pro­pri­at­or has been a pil­lar of the Re­pub­lic­an Party in Mis­sis­sippi since the 1970s, while Taylor last held of­fice as a Demo­crat un­til Palazzo beat him dur­ing the 2010 Re­pub­lic­an wave. He of­fi­cially switched parties only this year.

But both rep­res­ent the old-guard polit­ic­al es­tab­lish­ment, a throw­back to a time when de­liv­er­ing pork-bar­rel spend­ing to con­stitu­ents was viewed not only as a pos­it­ive but as a ne­ces­sary func­tion of the job. The cal­cu­la­tion is that even as Re­pub­lic­an polit­ics has be­come less tol­er­ant of ideo­lo­gic­al de­vi­ations in re­cent years, Mis­sis­sippi con­ser­vat­ives will still look fondly enough back on how things used to be done that they’ll send both men back to Wash­ing­ton.

To be sure, their op­pon­ents wel­come the fight. They’re con­fid­ent that voters will ul­ti­mately pro­cess the elec­tion not as a choice between the good old days of the past and an un­cer­tain fu­ture, but as a de­cision between au­then­t­ic con­ser­vat­ives and mod­er­ate squishes.

“What we’ve proven, time and time again, is that once voters real­ize that sen­at­ors like Thad Co­chran traded fund­ing for things like a lob­ster in­sti­tute in Maine or a “˜bridge to nowhere’ in Alaska in ex­change for pa­ro­chi­al pro­jects back home, they quickly be­gin to blame both the ear­marks and the people who voted for them for our $17 tril­lion in debt,” said Barney Keller, spokes­man for the con­ser­vat­ive Club for Growth.

Con­ser­vat­ive groups have lined up be­hind McDaniel’s quest to un­seat Co­chran, mak­ing him ar­gu­ably the single biggest tar­get with­in the GOP es­tab­lish­ment this year. They’ve sought to make Co­chran part of the past, a sym­bol of a dys­func­tion­al polit­ic­al sys­tem that has failed the coun­try.

That’s where Co­chran’s con­tin­ued sup­port of ear­marks could re­turn to haunt him — not be­cause of the an­ger it eli­cits among voters, but be­cause it could as­so­ci­ate him with a past many con­ser­vat­ives don’t re­gard kindly.

“Thad Co­chran doesn’t have a primary fight purely be­cause of ear­marks. He’s vul­ner­able be­cause over five dec­ades in Wash­ing­ton he’s be­come part of the prob­lem and the reas­on we have $17 tril­lion in debt,” Keller said. “Ear­marks are part of the story, but those, com­bined with his sup­port for bail­outs, tax hikes, and his sup­port for Obama’s debt-lim­it in­creases, tell the tale of a sen­at­or far too lib­er­al for a con­ser­vat­ive state like Mis­sis­sippi.”

Any sug­ges­tion the Mis­sis­sippi duo sig­nals a new em­brace of ear­marks among Re­pub­lic­ans seems doubt­ful. In most Re­pub­lic­an primar­ies across the coun­try, can­did­ates would soon­er dis­cuss re­peal­ing the 16th Amend­ment or ab­ol­ish­ing the De­part­ment of Edu­ca­tion than bring­ing back ear­marks.

But in Mis­sis­sippi — for now — they’re mak­ing a comeback. It’s up to voters to de­cide wheth­er the prac­tice should be re­vived.

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