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What Cochran’s Win Means for Hill Spending

Cochran talks in May with a constituent in Olive Branch, Miss. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Cochran talks in May with a constituent in Olive Branch, Miss. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

A congressional dead man walking just days ago, Thad Cochran has instead become one of the most influential players in the coming Congress. The senator who looked to become the tea party movement’s biggest scalp of 2014 is now in position to be the small government conservatives’ worst nightmare of 2015.  

Cochran’s upset runoff victory has made him a totally safe bet for a seventh term, and also increased by a small notch the prospect that he and his fellow Republicans could win control of the Senate this fall. If that happens, Cochran has not only the seniority but also the vanquished victor’s clout necessary to claim the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee — where he would surely restore some of the spend-along-to-get-along spirit of bipartisan collegiality that drives insurgents on the right absolutely nuts.  

Because the current limits on discretionary spending will be replaced by tightening sequester caps on domestic and military outlays for the remainder of the decade, Cochran would be legally powerless to break the bank during the four years he might be chairman. (He’d have to give up the gavel at the end of 2018, when he will turn 81, because the GOP has term limits and he ran Appropriations for two years in the past decade.)  

What’s more, the ideological dynamics of the Senate Republican Conference would make it highly unwise and probably impossible for Cochran to achieve a restoration of the old-time appropriations culture, in which both sides are willing to give in on plenty so they might gain a little — and still get home on time. For starters, if there’s switch in party control, the GOP membership on Appropriations would expand next year. That means the dominant voices would belong to the younger generation of fiscal hard-liners, no longer the senior accommodationists such as Cochran. Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland has made the restoration of regular order her singular priority since taking over the committee last year, and even her forceful personality has not been able to barrel through the hardened partisanship that has frozen the entire Senate once again this summer.  

If Mikulski’s doggedness cannot force the seemingly unremarkable “minibus” of three domestic spending bills to passage this month, it’s tough to see how Cochran’s courtliness would produce different results a year from now. Personalities aside, the numbers should not provide comfort to anyone hoping the gridlock would ease after the midterm. There are 55 members of the Democratic majority caucus now, five shy of the supermajority still necessary for breaking a legislative filibuster. Under even the most dramatic election scenarios, it’s tough to conjure up more than 55 members of a Republican majority caucus in the 114th Congress.  

Mississippi’s runoff results did give the GOP’s takeover prospects a little boost. State Sen. Chris McDaniel is so conservative that his victory would have created at least an outside chance for centrist ex-Rep. Travis Childers to pick up the seat for the Democrats come November. But Cochran’s triumph wipes the state off the map of even remotely competitive 2014 Senate contests, leaving only two races (Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s in Kentucky and the open seat in Georgia) where Democrats have a shot at a turnover. But counterbalancing that is the fact that Republicans are currently favored to pick up Senate seats in four states, and the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call gives the GOP a good shot at additional takeaways in at least six, and potentially as many as nine, other states.  

None of those states, however, show the potential for the sort of against-all-odds drama that climaxed Tuesday night in Mississippi, where Cochran took 51 percent (his margin was 6,400 votes) to became one of the few congressional incumbents in modern times to win a runoff after finishing as runner-up in an initial primary. Normal election dynamics are that the number of voters drops off substantially in the second round, so the advantage belongs to the candidate with the better momentum and the more passionate following.  

The senator upended that conventional wisdom, engineering an astonishing 18 percent increase in turnout, mainly by getting thousands to the polls who have nothing to do with his traditional base of support — African-Americans from solidly Democratic neighborhoods who did not vote anywhere three weeks ago, which means they could participate in the runoff under the state’s open primary law. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which views Cochran as just the sort of Appropriations chairman with whom it can best do business, pitched in with a TV spot featuring an endorsement from NFL legend and Mississippi native, Brett Favre.  

The result was Cochran found 37,000 more votes than he took on June 3, trumping McDaniel’s 29,000 increase in support.  

“There is something a bit strange, there is something a bit unusual about a Republican primary that’s decided by liberal Democrats,” McDaniel told his supporters Tuesday evening, declining to concede and hinting he might seek to challenge the results. “So much for bold colors. So much for principle. I guess they can take some consolation in the fact that they did something tonight by once again compromising, by once again reaching across the aisle, by once again abandoning the conservative movement.”  

The insurgent loser meant those as fighting words. The establishment winner is now poised to at least try to use those same words as guidance for the next six years.