Will Tea Party tail wag GOP dog

Published 12:20 am Sunday, September 18, 2011

Whether perception or electoral reality, the conventional wisdom in Mississippi was that in the 2010 midterm congressional elections the state Republican Party had the Tea Party movement — in its various forms and incarnations — to thank for ousting two incumbent Democratic congressmen in the state’s First and Fourth congressional districts.

Whether the Tea Party proper or groups like the Gulf Coast 912 Project or other factions, the ouster of 10-term incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor of Bay St. Louis and that of one-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Travis Childers of Booneville raised both the influence and the visibility of the conservative groups and brought Mississippi into the mainstream of what was perceived as a national victory for the Tea Party movement in taking control of the U.S. House away from the Democrats and handing it to the GOP.

Now comes some of Mississippi’s best known and most visible Tea Party movement spokesmen — figures like John Rhodes of the Gulf Coast 912 Project — talking to the press in terms of possible moves to oust both Republican U.S. Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker. In an interview with the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo, Rhodes said of the state’s entire congressional delegation: “There’s going to be an anti-incumbent movement in the next election. I can tell you that already. We sent these guys up to fight the battle in our behalf, and they’re not. We’re either going to get our heads together, or we’ll replace them.”

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With all due respect to Rhodes and those of like mind, if Cochran and Wicker aren’t conservative enough to suit them, then the GOP in Mississippi may face some problems maintaining the dominance they’ve enjoyed over the last quarter-century in congressional politics in Mississippi. And where, pray tell, are those disenchanted conservative Tea Party voters to go if not with the GOP?

Democrats certainly would not seem to attract Tea Party support. The question then becomes whether the Tea Party then breaks away and forms its own legitimate third party apparatus or continues to try to work within the existing two-party system paradigm.

Since the Democratic Party reached the apex of its power and dominance in state government in 1968 with the almost simultaneous implementation of massive public school desegregation and the seating of the Mississippi Freedom Democrats at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the GOP began systematically to gain in congressional politics in the state. Cochran was one of the pioneer GOP candidates along with Trent Lott.

But in talking with the Tupelo newspaper, Rhodes now accuses Cochran of being the “king of pork” and Wicker of ignoring his conservative base.

By the Gallup Poll’s measure, Mississippi is the “most conservative” state in the union. It is also, in point of fact, the poorest state in the union. A smaller government that cuts or at least holds the line on taxes at all levels resonated with voters and is expected to do so again in the 2011 state elections and in the 2012 federal elections as well. Federal debts and deficits suggest that course to be both prudent and long overdue.

But in poor states like Mississippi, a smaller federal government comes with a price in terms of the quality and scope of public health care, public education, highway construction, defense contracting and other federal spending that creates a substantial number of jobs and has for decades.

Prematurely sacrificing Thad Cochran’s seniority and rank on the Senate Appropriations Committee will simply make that price higher and the bill come sooner in terms of reduced, diminished or eliminated government services.

(Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 662-325-2506 or ssalter@library.msstate.edu.)