Maybe it is not a Paul on the road to Damascus moment, but many Mississippi Republican leaders have experienced an epiphany during the hotly contested U.S. Senate primary elections.
For years in Mississippi, the Republican mantra from the top on down is that the federal government is bad and, if only the federal government were run like Mississippi, then everything would be much better.
But now with second-term state Sen. Chris McDaniel of Ellisville, a Tea Party favorite, on the verge of possibly defeating six-term incumbent Thad Cochran in the Republican runoff on June 24, all of a sudden the tune is that it would be tragic for Mississippi to lose Cochran and all of those federal dollars he brings to the state.
Cochran has long been heralded as an old-school politician able to deliver federal funds for Mississippi, and state Republican leaders have taken note of that regularly in the past. But they’ve never had to defend it in a heated re-election campaign.
McDaniel, on the other hand, has made some bold statements about his efforts to try to cut federal funds, including money going to education should he be elected to the U.S. Senate. A reduction in those funds, at best, would be difficult for the education entities in Mississippi to overcome; at worst, it would be darn-near catastrophic for the state.
McDaniel led the June 3 Republican primary by a scant 1,418 votes, but did not garner the majority needed to end Cochran’s long and historic political career. In the runoff, the mantra of the Republican establishment, which almost in unanimity is supporting Cochran, has been that Mississippi needs the federal funds that Cochran has been influential in securing.
Perhaps that campaign rhetoric might be easier for the average Republican primary voter to accept if not for the rhetoric in recent years from the same establishment about how out of control federal spending is in general and how it must be stopped.
Truth be known, federal funding to Mississippi is not going to stop whether McDaniel or Cochran is elected.
For instance, do Mississippians want to give away the seniority and respect Cochran has earned in our nation’s capital and do Mississippians want to send Cochran home at a time when he could realistically become the chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee?
Or do Mississippians want to send a different voice, one that by his own admission will be an obstructionist, trying to make changes to the status quo? If Chris McDaniel is elected, he will not have unfettered freedom to enact his agenda, but he will be another voice from that particular wing of the Republican Party – a wing that is at best less than half of the overall makeup in the party in D.C.
The problem for Cochran is that the Tea Party wing has a disproportionate share of the influence in a Mississippi Republican primary.
Why? In part because in recent years, the state Republican Party establishment has been busy repeating the rhetoric that the federal government is bad, federal spending is bad, we do it better here in Mississippi.
The voters in the Republican Party primary have by and large brought that rhetoric lock, stock and barrel. But that has never been what most of the GOP establishment actually believed. For instance, former Gov. Haley Barbour cursed the so-called stimulus package passed through Congress by President Barack Obama during the midst of the great recession, but he happily accepted the bulk of those funds designed to help the states.
Now with Cochran possibly on the verge of defeat, the Mississippi Republican Party establishment is having to use a more nuanced message.
And that message is not all federal spending is bad – especially when it comes to Mississippi.
After his experience on the road to Damascus, the Bible teaches us Paul had to work to convert the Gentiles. Right now the Republican establishment is having to convert its own.
Bobby Harrison is Capitol Bureau reporter in Jackson for the Daily Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 946-9931.