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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.”

Indeed. “If Mississippi did what the Tea Party claims they want  … we would become a Third World country, quickly,” said Rickey Cole, the state Democratic chairman. “We depend on the federal government to help us build our highways. We depend on the federal government to fund our hospitals, our health care system. We depend on the federal government to help us educate our students on every level.”

Cole noted that the hospital he was born in “wasn’t built by the taxpayers of Mississippi, it was built with federal money that was collected from taxpayers in New York and Chicago and L.A. and San Francisco.”

To survive a runoff, Cochran may now have to face up to the incongruity of trying to be an anti-spending spender by challenging the core of the McDaniel case. As it became clear late Tuesday night that Cochran would fall short, Stuart Stevens, one of the GOP’s top political consultants and a Cochran loyalist, previewed for reporters a line of inquiry that will be familiar to liberals.

McDaniel, Stevens said, “is always talking about cutting spending. No one has ever asked Chris McDaniel what he’s going to cut.” Stevens added: “Is he going to cut community colleges in his district? Is he going to cut highway funds to his district?”

These queries will certainly appeal to Democrat Travis Childers, the rather conservative former member of Congress who handily won his party’s Senate nomination on Tuesday. Cochran supporters believe that a McDaniel nomination could lead to the unthinkable. “The concern is that this would open the door for a potential Democratic senator,” Philip Gunn, the Republican Speaker of the Mississippi House, told me the night before the primary. Childers’ “chances against McDaniel are better than his chances against Cochran.”

Yes, Childers could run as a Thad Cochran Democrat — except he wouldn’t be saddled with the need to appease an ideology that has to pretend federal spending doesn’t benefit anybody, least of all the people of Mississippi.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

AFP Photo/Jonathan Ernst

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