At $40 per vote, Mississippi race reflects no-limits politics

The most expensive Senate primary race in Mississippi history — the majority of the spending on seemingly every-minute TV attack ads paid for by outside political organizations — dramatically illustrates just how drastically the Supreme Court’s liberalization of campaign finance rules has altered the nation’s election landscape.

“All politics is local,” former House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously said.  No longer. Now, politics — even in what would otherwise have been a ho-hum race, in a taken-for-granted state, between an upstart, little-known challenger and a six-term senator with the seniority and power it takes to get things done for his constituents — has become the province of groups with specific agendas and the deep pockets it takes to buy the media exposure needed to influence voters.

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In the Mississippi Republican primary race between veteran Sen. Thad Cochran and his Tea Party-backed challenger, Chris McDaniel, TV ads for both were rife with character assassination and innuendo. It was only by listening carefully and reading the small type at the end (which most people won’t do) that one learned most of the ads — over $8 million worth — were not from the candidates themselves, but from outside organizations with names that would mean nothing to the average voter. The candidates together spent about $4 million; the total of candidate/outside money represented about $40 per vote cast. By the time a June 24 runoff is over, and millions more are spent on attack ads, that total will go even higher.

With both Cochran and McDaniel failing by a hair-thin margin to achieve a majority in the primary, there continues the barrage of attack ads by outside political groups whose only interest in Mississippi is in furthering their own ends — however much those ends may not coincide with the needs of the people of the state.

As icing on the irony cake, a third candidate that almost nobody ever heard of ended up being the spoiler in the race between Cochran and McDaniel. Thomas Carey, a retired telephone installer/realtor/prison ministry worker, who ran not a single TV ad and raised no campaign money, got a few thousand votes, 1.6 percent, just enough to deny either of the top candidates the 50 percent needed to win and force them into an expensive runoff.

Because the behind-the-scenes advocacy groups need not have candidate approval for (or even knowledge of) anything used in the ads they run, the candidates themselves, however noble their campaign principles might be, can be made to appear the most vicious of mudslingers and character assassins.

Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, himself no slouch in the art of politics, locally and nationally, summed it thusly: “These groups don’t care about Mississippi; they don’t know the difference between Pascagoula and Pontotoc. For these groups, this is about getting a scalp to increase their national political reputations; it is not about who would represent our state more effectively.”

There has been no little irony that the ads against Cochran have derided him as a “Washington insider” who has “lost sight of Mississippi values” — when for 36 years he has done exactly what Mississippians sent him to Washington to do: look out for the best interests of the people of his state.

In a state where some 45.8 percent of general revenue is traced to federal transfers, it would be hard to tally the billions of dollars in programs, grants, projects, and jobs (thousands of them related to military bases and companies that have military contracts) that have come through Cochran’s influence and power in Washington — including a lot of very important farm programs. With the lowest per capita federal tax payments of all states, Mississippi ranks second only to New Mexico in federal tax dollars received for federal tax dollars paid.

One can only imagine the screaming that would ring o’er hill and dale were all those hated federal dollars and related jobs to dry up.

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