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Friday, December 9, 2016

JACKSON, MS. — Can you hate the federal government but love the money it spends on you?

The electoral earthquake that was Mississippi’s Republican Senate primary has pushed this question to the forefront of American politics.

In conventional terms, the success of state senator Chris McDaniel in outpolling Thad Cochran, a 34-year Senate veteran, on Tuesday and forcing him into a runoff was a triumph for the Tea Party movement. Outside conservative groups such as FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth spent millions trying to oust a gracious and civil incumbent they saw as far too cozy with Washington’s big spenders.

If Cochran went to Washington to bring back what Mississippi needs — most crucially after Hurricane Katrina — McDaniel vowed he would fight D.C.’s expansive government and named Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee as his role models. McDaniel takes delight in the word “fight.”

Cochran had the support of the entire Mississippi Republican establishment, from the governor on down. These practical politicians understand how important Cochran’s senior role on the Appropriations Committee is for their state and relish the idea that Cochran would become chairman again if the GOP wins the majority in the Senate.

“By God’s grace, he was chair of Appropriations for two years during Katrina and it made all the difference in the world,” former Governor Haley Barbour said in an interview last month. Cochran was pondering retirement, but “a lot of people” told him, “Thad, don’t put yourself first. Put Mississippi first.”

Barbour and his allies did all they could for their friend, but there was that nagging contradiction at the heart of their argument: Cochran said he was as stoutly conservative and penny-pinching as McDaniel, but also the agent for many good things that come this state’s way courtesy of the despised national capital. Mississippi taxpayers get $3.07 back for every $1 they send to Washington, according to Wallet Hub, a personal finance website. The Tax Foundation ranks Mississippi No. 1 among the states in federal aid as a percentage of state revenue.

Strange numbers, you’d think, for a Beltway-hating state, but Marty Wiseman, the former director of the Stennis Institute at Mississippi State University, explained the apparent inconsistency. “Our anti-Washington politics has been to make sure that we got as much of it here as we could,” he said. “You’ve got the Tea Party excited that they’ve corralled a big spender, but he was bringing it back to Mississippi. That’s the paradox of all paradoxes.”