I was at a boozy Washington function a few years ago when in walked Bob McDonnell, then-governor of Virginia, and Haley Barbour, then-governor of Mississippi. McDonnell hung back with a beer in his hand and rarely in his mouth, making small talk at the edge of the crowd. Barbour stormed into the middle of the party brandishing both a whiskey and a long-neck, slapping backs and shouting in a marble-mouthed southern accent, good to f—king see this one and it’s been too f—king long with that one.
At the time I thought I was witnessing the difference between a man who was running for president and a man who wasn’t. But there was also a cultural difference on display: a governor from a Southeast purple state where politics can be unpredictable, versus a governor from the Deep South where GOP power is nearly absolute and concentrated in a good ol’ boy power structure.
Thad Cochran is one of those good ol’ boys. First elected to the House of Representatives in 1972, Cochran served three terms there, then ran for the Senate where he’s been for the past thirty-six years. In 2005 he was appointed chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee.
Last night, Cochran sucessfully defended his altitudinous perch, defeating Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel by a narrow margin. It wasn’t easy. The campaign, which stretched on for months, was ferocious and cost over $17 million in a state where the most populous city, Jackson, is only the ninetieth largest media market in the country. Cochran outspent McDaniel three to one, armed with money from fellow Republican lawmakers, Michael Bloomberg, and the Mississippi Conservatives Super PAC run by Haley Barbour’s nephew.
Ultimately the good ol’ boys network prevailed, and Cochran slid past McDaniel by just over one percentage point. It was a stunning victory in a race that many had been written off ever since David Brat trounced Eric Cantor two weeks ago. In Virginia, the polls were hopelessly skewed in favor of the incumbent; in Mississippi they were jarringly wrong again, with the most recent Chism Strategies survey finding an eight-point lead for McDaniel. Conservatives are accusing Cochran of chicanery and they likely have a point. Cochran made get-out-the-vote overtures to African-American Democrats, and last night he walked away with the black vote. In heavily black Hinds County, Cochran trounced McDaniel 72 to 28 percent.
Whether Cochran won fair or not, expect the overcaffeinated political press to overplay the results and announce a shift of momentum back to the GOP establishment. But what does Cochran’s unlikely victory mean for Mississippi, and politics in general?
Mississippi has always been torn between two impulses. The first is a deeply felt cultural conservatism, the sort you expect in a blood-red Deep South state consistently rated by Gallup as the most religious in the country. The second is a preference for a stable politics husbanded by a network of good ol’ boy political heavyweights. Magnolia Staters don’t like to mothball their politicians. Cochran’s predecessor, James Eastland, was elected during World War II. His predecessor, Pat Harrison, was elected during World War I.
That second impulse is closely intertwined with pork. Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation and receives the most federal money, taking $3.08 for every dollar it pays in taxes. In 2010, the last year earmarks were (overtly) allowed, Mississippi received the fifth highest total per capita among the fifty states. The senator who earmarked the most was none other than Thad Cochran. Number three was Mississippi’s other senator, Roger Wicker.
This has been the covenant between Mississippi voters and politicians for some time: lawmakers rumble about conservatism back home, then head to Washington and turn on the fiscal faucet. It’s why the Tea Party was always a tougher sell in the Deep South than, say, the more libertarian West. In the eyes of many Mississippi voters, Tea Partiers were putting the fiscally conservative cart before the socially conservative horse—and why clog up that profitable pipeline from Washington anyway?
Cochran’s win indicates that the mood hasn’t changed as much as Tea Partiers hoped. McDaniel has positioned himself as an insurgent since his early days in the state senate. He attacked Cochran as a creature of the Barbour family, on good terms with whiskey-wielding Washingtonians, but out of touch with his struggling constituents. He even ridiculed Cochran as the “king of pork.” He made an audacious bet that Mississippi was ready for change, and it didn’t pay the dividends he expected.
If there is one legislator who should have been doomed in the modern GOP, it’s Thad Cochran. He is a good ol’ boy who shamelessly advertised his connections with powerful families like the Barbours and speculated that he might not serve out his new term. He is a lousy candidate who always looked like he’d just been bamboozled by the Roadrunner. After Cantor lost to Brat earlier this month, Cochran didn’t seem to know what had happened. With the country ablaze with anti-incumbent sentiment, he praised Washington as a “good, competitive environment where the best ideas emerge.”
The lesson of last night isn’t that the Tea Party is dead; indeed it’s impressive that McDaniel was able to accomplish what he did given his monetary disadvantage. It’s that, even in this age of fiscal conservatism, the GOP good ol’ boys network is alive and well. The right money and minds can still propel even the most cadaverous incumbent to victory. But you know what? It’s a lot harder than it used to be and we should be excited by that. In lieu of actual term limits, voters have taken it upon themselves to challenge lawmakers who get too crusty. It wasn’t a good night for Chris McDaniel, but it wasn’t a good night for the good ol’ boys either.