Thad Cochran is old school. Before the Tea Party came to town in 2010 and ruined everything, the six-term Republican senator from Mississippi had made a name for himself as an unapologetic purveyor of pork. But Cochran’s past could haunt him as he tries to defend his seat against a conservative primary challenger.
When Republicans won the House in 2010, they helped bring about an end to the long-cherished practice of congressional earmarking. During the lame-duck session in December 2010, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) rallied Republicans to kill a proposed omnibus spending bill that was loaded with earmarks, including more than $500 million that Cochran had requested.
That year, Citizens Against Government Waste nominated Cochran for its “Porker of the Year” award, noting that “Thad the Impaler” had requested a total of $490 million worth of earmarks. Cochran has successfully obtained billions for projects in Mississippi since being elected in 1978. His tenure as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee from 2005 to 2007 was particularly lucrative. In 2006, Time magazine praised Cochran as “The Quiet Persuader” for his ability to “get tough on behalf of his state” and quoted a senior Republican senator touting Cochran as “effectively stubborn doing what needs to be done.”
All that money has helped fund projects such as the Thad Cochran Marine Aquaculture Center at the University of Southern Mississippi, the Thad Cochran Research Center at the University of Mississippi, and the Thad Cochran Research, Technology and Economic Development Park near Mississippi State University.
According to a 2007 Tax Foundation study, Mississippi ranked second in terms of the federal dollars it receives per dollar of taxes paid (a little over $2.00, compared with just $0.61 for last-place New Jersey). And while some in Mississippi may be inclined to defend Cochran as a “prolific master of using congressionally directed spending . . . to the benefit of his Mississippi constituents,” his GOP challenger, Chris McDaniel, is certain to paint Cochran’s spending habits in a negative light.
“The national debt is the greatest moral crisis of this generation,” McDaniel said in October when he announced his candidacy. “So, let’s go forth from this place making it perfectly clear that the era of big spending is over. The age of appropriations must end.”
In an interview with Bloomberg, McDaniel called earmarks “problematic” because “for every project, or piece of pork, that comes to Mississippi, thousands of others go to other states, and at some point we have to recognize that our trajectory is not sustainable.”
McDaniel is backed by limited-government advocacy groups such as the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, and the Madison Project. When Cochran announced his decision to seek reelection last year, Club for Growth president Chris Chocola blasted the incumbent senator as a “strong supporter of wasteful earmarks.”
Backing Cochran is Mississippi Conservatives, a super PAC run by Henry Barbour, the nephew of former Republican governor Haley Barbour, who is somewhat of a poster child for corporate cronyism. Cochran is one of six Republican senators up for reelection this year who are facing primary challenges from the right.
Public Policy Polling warned in November, before Cochran had even decided to run again, that the incumbent was “in serious danger of losing” to newcomer McDaniel, whom he led by just six points, 44–38 percent.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.