Mississippi burning: The GOP's uncivil war rages onward
It'd be so awesome if tea-party poster boy Chris McDaniel were to win the vicious Senate race in Mississippi.
Then we'd see how the people in that impoverished state truly feel about being represented in Washington by a guy who has actually vowed, "I'm not going to do anything for you."
During this long GOP primary season, McDaniel has repeatedly denounced his opponent, six-term incumbent Republican Sen. Thad Cochran, for his "wasteful spending," and has promised voters that he will "get the government off your back." How fascinating it would be to see McDaniel honor that promise, and dry up the federal spending on which Mississippi so desperately depends.
But McDaniel isn't there yet. Last night, in the bloodiest battle of the uncivil war between the tea party and the GOP establishment, he came within a whisker of knocking Cochran off. With virtually all precincts reporting, McDaniel's vote share is 49.5 percent, topping Cochran's 48.9 (a third-party candidate got the rest). That's the best showing for any tea-party challenger this year. Problem is, Mississippi requires that its winner receive 50 percent. McDaniel just missed - so now we'll likely get a runoff on June 24.
Another round? Really? This race has been wild already. Lest we forget, some of McDaniel's tea-partying pals have been arrested for sneaking into a nursing home and photographing Cochran's invalid wife (to spice up a rumor that Cochran has been canoodling with an aide). Meanwhile, Cochran aides have been retailing some of McDaniel's most colorful remarks, including his belief that a white guy can woo Mexican girl by calling her mamacita. Outside groups have spent $8 million on this contest, with lots more to come.
But, scandals and gaffes aside, the race is really a debate about the role of government - and about the chasm that separates McDaniel's anti-government rhetoric from the reality of life in Mississippi.
Consider McDaniel's opponent. Thad Cochran, the 36-year incumbent, calls himself a conservative Republican - he supports "limited government" - but his main asset is that he brings home buckets of federal money. He says so himself: "The longer I've been (in Washington), the more I appreciate the seniority system. It has benefited our state in a lot of ways."
That's an understatement. Mississippi, a reliably red state where dissing Washington is a sport second only to football, is in truth the nation's top beneficiary of money from Washington. (Multiple studies say so.) For every dollar its citizens pay in federal taxes, Mississippi gets back $3 in federal spending - agricultural subsidies, food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, college buildings, defense jobs, health centers, bucks for the Choctaw Indian tribe, you name it. What a great deal for government-haters!
What we have here, in other words, is a major cognitive disconnect. If government ever got off the backs of Mississippians, their backs would be broken.
As political science professor Joseph Parker recently told the conservative Washington Times, "Mississippi would dry up like a prune if we didn't have the federal government. Cussing the government is like kicking the dog - everybody does it for one reason or another, but Mississippi is getting a fabulous return on its investment in Washington." Thanks to Cochran, of course.
Cochran has been a master at bringing home the bacon - in 2010 alone, he tallied half a billion dollars, just for the now-banned projects known as earmarks - and if the Republicans win the Senate this November, he'd be well-positioned to reap even more federal bounty, as incoming chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee.
But for the tea-party purists who have put Chris McDaniel on the cusp of victory (there's a general election in November, but a Democrat hasn't won since 1982), Cochran's clout is deemed to be a bad thing. Bringing home federal money to a dirt-poor state is a bad thing, a betrayal of conservative values. A spokesman for the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, which has already spent $630,000 on McDaniel's behalf, openly scoffs at "this spigot of money flowing our way."
Problem is, the tea-partyers never actually say what they'd do if that spigot was turned off. Ideological purity is fine and dandy, but there comes a point when you actually have to govern. If McDaniel winds up in the Senate and snuffs the federal money, Mississippians would suffer and the state budget would be in crisis mode. And then, rest assured, the red-state folks who routinely cuss Washington would be begging Washington for help.
So I'm rooting hard for McDaniel to win the runoff three weeks from now. It'd be fun to watch a tea-party senator fulfill his pledge to do nothing.
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1