It’s been said that Republicans turn suicidal after having some success. While they have had no success nationally of late, it has been a different story down here in the Deep South.
Here, Republicans have grabbed control of the government and are riding high. An extremist strain of GOPers has creeped into the arena and is creating havoc in the party.
Tea Party is what the newcomers are called, claiming to be dedicated to smaller government. In reality – as demonstrated by the recent government shutdown precipitated by a cadre of Tea Partiers in the House – they apparently prefer no government. Should they be called anarchists?
So much for Tea Party hijinks in Washington. The politically important question here in Mississippi – where homegrown Democrats controlled public offices for nearly a century – is how an untested Republican Party can stand up to the Tea Party insurrection.
To prove they can’t be lightly regarded, the Tea Partiers tried last week to knock off the state’s most respected GOP officeholder, Sen. Thad Cochran. It was more than coincidental that their stalking horse to put Cochran out to pasture announced his candidacy the day after Cochran voted for the bipartisan compromise to reopen the government and pay the nation’s bills.
State Sen. Chris McDaniel of Ellisville is their choice to end Cochran’s 42-year congressional career. Though relatively unknown, McDaniel has been grabbing a lot of face time on TV with various right-wing legislative proposals, and as founder of the Senate Conservative Caucus. In his campaign-opening remarks at Ellisville last week he zinged Cochran’s vote as “more of a surrender than a compromise.” Gives you some idea of what we’ll be hearing from the 42-year-old McDaniel.
Cochran, who will be 76 in December, has not announced if he will seek a seventh Senate term. He would become one more Senate GOP senior conservative to be “primaried” by extremists on the right who contend the old guard failed to use every weapon to block initiatives by President Barack Obama, particularly his signature health care reform.
In his Senate career, Cochran has been identified with the band of GOP conservatives. However, historian Michael Barone has written that while earning his conservative credentials, Cochran has not been a “rigid” conservative, occasionally joining the fading moderate wing of the party. Before winning his Senate seat in 1978, Cochran had served six years as what is now Mississippi’s 3rd District congressman, as the state GOP began to evolve as a political power.
His 1978 Senate win marked a major transition in Mississippi politics. Jim Eastland, the state’s powerhouse Democratic senator for four decades, decided to step down at age 73 and strangely did not anoint any Democratic successor. Cochran handily won a Republican primary to become GOP standard-bearer. On the Democratic side former Columbia mayor and district attorney Maurice Dantin had survived a party primary featured by incumbent Gov. Cliff Finch and former Gov. Bill Waller, once an Eastland favorite who fell from grace when he earlier announced he would challenge Eastland. What made the 1978 general election most unusual was that Charles Evers, brother of assassinated civil rights pioneer Medgar Evers, emerged as an independent candidate in the state’s first test of blacks’ voting strength since the Voting Rights Act became law.
Cochran won the race with 45 percent of the vote, edging out Dantin’s 36 percent and Evers’ 29. Political observers naturally concluded Cochran couldn’t have won without Evers taking away the black vote from Dantin. Of note, six years later, Cochran beat back a challenge from Democratic ex-Gov. William Winter, thereby consolidating his staying power. No real Democratic challenger has run since.
Cochran has built a reputation as a senior Republican on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, chairing it in years of Republican majorities. He became labeled “king of pork” by some of his colleagues for sticking earmarks into appropriation bills. Significantly most of the earmarks went to important programs at Mississippi’s under-funded universities.
His most memorable achievement using the power of federal dollars to make a tremendous difference in the life of his state came after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 devastated much of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast region. As 2005 drew to an end, Cochran, then chairman of Appropriations, was able to stick a $6 billion unrestricted earmark for Mississippi recovery in the only spending vehicle available, a must-pass supplemental defense appropriation. People probably forget that Bush offered no help to support an outright appropriation for Katrina recovery. Let’s see some Johnny-come-lately fiscal hawk make something of that.
Syndicated columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947.Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.