Three weeks ago, Mississippians weary of the noise in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate were relieved that the race was finally about to be over. Little did we know that an obscure third candidate’s 1.5 percent of the vote would throw one of the closest elections in Mississippi history into a three-week runoff campaign.
While it seemed like only more punishment at the time, the ensuing weeks have served a beneficial purpose. The runoff campaign has helped to more sharply clarify the choice that awaits voters Tuesday as they decide between six-term U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran and state Sen. Chris McDaniel, the insurgent Tea Party-driven challenger.
The choice could not be more stark. On the one hand, there’s Cochran, the 76-year-old former and potentially future Senate Appropriations Committee chairman who through quiet influence has unapologetically directed billions of federal dollars to Mississippi in education programs and research, defense spending, economic development and disaster relief. These dollars, part of the small portion of the federal budget that is discretionary, would not have been eliminated from the budget without Cochran’s influence but would simply have gone to some other state.
His opponent, the 42-year-old McDaniel, vows to end the state’s reliance on federal dollars as part of the effort to reduce the national debt. That’s a principled position, but McDaniel has had a hard time sticking to it. He has either avoided specifics on how he would approach issues like agricultural aid or has backed away from previous statements such as opposition to federal funding for education. He certainly has had no convincing answer for how those dollars would be made up in the nation’s poorest state, and without them there would be heavy job losses and diminished opportunity for many Mississippians to raise themselves out of the cycle of low educational attainment and high poverty.
Cochran’s aggressive runoff campaigning – so different from the controlled, muted tenor of his first primary approach – has helped to offset perceptions that he was not fully engaged or up to the fight. But the low-key nature of the earlier campaign was in part reflective of another contrast in the candidates. Cochran’s goal is to quietly get things done; McDaniel calls for full combat mode that prefers going down in partisan flames to the Reaganesque approach of forging the best possible bipartisan compromise that might actually help get the nation’s fiscal policy in order.