By Robbie Ward
Political organizations with no spending limits that have been credited with defeating incumbent U.S. senators in primary elections have Mississippi’s six-term Republican in their crosshairs.
U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran’s supporters argue his finesse and long history of sending billions in federal money to Mississippi public universities, medical research and infrastructure throughout the state has led to more jobs and improvements in one of the nation’s poorest states.
Cochran’s name adorns many buildings, institutes and centers throughout the state to show gratitude for his support.
Congress banned earmarks in 2011 after criticism that they wasted tax dollars on unneeded projects, but resentment toward Cochran’s support for the practice continues to fester among insurgent conservative groups taking on the Republican establishment.
Tea Party organizations and other groups and individuals determined to radically reduce government spending view Cochran’s past aggressive federal earmarking as symbolism for bloated government spending. These groups believe Cochran’s actions in Washington don’t reflect the fiscal conservatism he espouses.
Four PACs based in metropolitan Washington have spent at least $675,069 since October to support Tea Party favorite Chris McDaniel, 41, a relatively unknown state senator until he announced in October plans to unseat the third most senior U.S. senator in the June 3 primary election.
Cochran, 76, began his Senate career in 1978 after serving six years in the U.S. House of Representatives. His votes and deal-making through the decades have angered some special interest groups ready to see him retire.
“Senator Cochran is a liberal on economic issues,” said Barney Keller, communications director for the Club for Growth, a political group that promotes limited government spending and financial regulation. “There’s actually a fiscal conservative in Chris McDaniel running this year.”
The Club for Growth operates a so-called Super PAC, a PAC that can accept an unlimited amount of contributions and spend unlimited cash toward defeating or supporting candidates. During the 2014 mid-term election cycle, Club for Growth Action has spent $1.1 million to assist candidates it supports in three states, 20 percent of which has paid for producing and buying television time for ads for McDaniel.
Three other PACs with unlimited spending limits have prioritized spending toward McDaniel’s effort.
Tea Party-affiliated groups spending independently of candidates and political parties in mostly GOP primaries had a strong impact in some 2012 federal elections. Incumbent U.S. Sens. Dick Lugar of Indiana and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska both lost primaries to Tea Party-endorsed candidates after independent spending poured into the races.
Most of the same PACs trying to unseat Cochran have also targeted Senate Republican Party leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. While it’s still early in the primary season, PACs supporting McDaniel have poured more than $3 million into congressional races in seven states.
Cochran, no stranger to PACs, received $275,488 in PAC support from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, the most recent period reported to the Federal Election Commission. This accounted for 83 percent of his total contributions, compared to McDaniel’s $15,000 in PAC money during the same time, about 3 percent of his total contributions collected, which also included a $100,000 loan to his campaign.
However, not all PACs are created equal. PACs are committees organized to raise and spend money to elect and defeat candidates. Most represent businesses, labor unions or ideological interests. They can contribute up to $5,000 directly to a candidate’s campaign during the primary election cycle and again for the general election.
PACs that do not coordinate with a candidate’s campaign can spend unlimited money in primary and general elections. So-called super PACs created after a federal court ruling in 2010 unloaded record amounts of money to influence elections. Super PACs cannot donate to or coordinate with candidates or political parties but can raise unlimited amounts of money from any organization or individual and can spend unlimited amounts supporting or opposing a candidate.
Super PACs must file financial reports with the FEC showing expenditures but some donors can be hidden.
Of four PACs making independent expenditures supporting McDaniel, two are super PACs.
Cochran supporters watched as pro-McDaniel super PACs began spending in the race and organized their own on Jan. 31.
Brian Perry operates a Jackson-based public policy company and created Mississippi Conservatives, the super PAC intended to combat a spending deluge by super PACs opposed to Cochran.
“I’ve seen in other states when these groups get involved,” he said. “If we thought it was an easy race, we wouldn’t be involved.”
Rob Mellen, an assistant professor at Mississippi State University, researched the impact of independent expenditures during 2010 midterm elections. He said PACs, especially super PACs, can significantly influence elections.
“The dangerous part of that as far as I can see is the candidates may lose the ability to define their message,” he said. “They may end up being defined by these outside organizations; a lot of it isn’t based in fact.”
Mississippi Conservatives paid $219,540 for a television ad claiming McDaniel’s state Senate voting record isn’t consistent with his rhetoric. FactCheck.org at The University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center slammed the ad as full of distortion.
Perry stands behind the television ad.
“The facts are accurate,” he said. “We were saying Chris McDaniel says one thing and does another.”
More than three months until voters decide who to choose in the GOP primary, super Pacs seem poised to blanket Mississippi with independent spending. Perry said his super PAC will keep trying to influence the GOP primary as long as pro-McDaniel groups keep spending. Closer to the primary election, more outside organizations will likely pile more money into the race.
Keller, the communications director for the Club for Growth, said his organization has committed resources for throughout the election.
“We intend to do everything necessary to make sure Chris McDaniel is the next senator in Mississippi,” he said.
This ad opposing Chris McDaniel was funded by independent Mississippi Conservatives PAC, which has paid $219,540 on Jan. 30 in media buys for the commercial.
Senate Conservatives Fund PAC paid $245,233 for a media buy on Nov. 14 of this ad supporting McDaniel. This same PAC also paid a total $30,339 for media production for McDaniel-related ads from Oct. 30 to Nov. 14.
The Madison Project PAC paid $20,300 in Nov. 4 for media buys for this ad.