OXFORD, MISS. — Sen. Thad Cochran is closing out the final days of his primary campaign by promising voters that if he’s re-elected he will keep doing what he has done for decades: fighting to make sure that Mississippi gets its “fair share” of the federal pie.
The promise of the Republican incumbent clashes with the limited government message that two-term state Sen. Chris McDaniel, his tea party-backed challenger, has espoused on the campaign trail, where he has called Mississippi a “welfare state,” pledged to get government off people’s backs, and blamed the likes of Mr. Cochran for the nation’s $17 trillion national debt.
The irony, according to political observers and GOP insiders, is that the thing that could end Mr. Cochran’s 36 years in the Senate — his proven ability to steer federal funding to Mississippi — is the same thing that also could save it.
“Mississippi would dry up like a prune if we didn’t have the federal government,” said Joseph Parker, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Southern Mississippi.
“Obviously, cussing the federal government is like kicking the dog — everybody does it for one reason or another, but Mississippi is getting a fabulous return on its investment in Washington,” Mr. Parker said.
Mississippi and New Mexico are ranked as the most dependent states on the federal government, according to a recent study from WalletHub, a personal finance social network.
The study said that federal funding comprises nearly 46 percent of Mississippi’s revenue and said the state received $3.07 back for ever dollar it sent to the federal government.
A Tax Foundation study also found that Mississippi ranked first in the amount of federal aid as percentage of state revenue.
Mr. Cochran, 76, has been master at bringing home the bacon, and suggested during the campaign that he’d like to see the return of earmarks, which lawmakers put on ice in 2010.
In the three years leading up to moratorium, Mr. Cochran steered more earmarks to his home state than any other member of Congress.
“Senator Cochran requested 709 earmarks, costing taxpayers $1.9 billion dollars,” said Thomas A. Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. “Each year he had both the highest number and dollar amount in earmarks. It would be legitimate to say that Sen. Cochran was the No. 1 earmarked, or porker, however you want to describe it, for fiscal years 2008, 2009, and 2010.”
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Mr. Cochran also helped secure disaster funding for the state, and is now in line to become chairman of the powerful appropriations committee if Republicans win control of the Senate.
But Mr. Cochran’s genteel, old fashioned, approach has fallen out of favor with the conservative grass roots, which celebrate the likes of Sen. Ted Cruz, the fresh Texas Republican of Texas who has taken more of a no-holds-barred approach to governing.
Mr. McDaniel, 42, says that he is cut from the same cloth as Mr. Cruz, and caught flak earlier this year for saying “I’m not going to do anything for you.”
“This race is about Mississippi’s future not its past,” said Noel Fritsch, a spokesman for Mr. McDaniel’s campaign. “Mississippi voters know we need a change in Washington. The status quo has left not just our country but in fact our state worse off.”