McDaniel’s Mississippi Roots Run Deep In Jones County
By Bill Nichols, Politico, June 17, 2014
LAUREL, Miss. — Here in the Mississippi Pine Belt, Jones County has been known as “The Free State of Jones” since the Civil War, when a hardheaded fellow named Newton Knight led a movement to oppose the Confederacy. His beef would resonate with tea partiers of today; Knight and his comrades felt they shouldn’t be conscripted as Rebel soldiers when plantations with more than 20 slaves could exempt one white male. They believed dirt farmers shouldn’t fight a rich man’s war.
Some 150 years later, the Free State of Jones is the epicenter of Chris McDaniel’s insurgent bid to upend an institution of Mississippi’s political royalty, six-term incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran. A hometown boy from nearby Ellisville who has represented the area in the state Senate, McDaniel got an almost unbelievable 85 percent of the vote in Jones in the June 3 primary that set up a June 24 runoff rematch.
And as the conventional wisdom of the 2014 midterm cycle has been turned upside down by McDaniel’s rise and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning defeat last Tuesday, Jones offers a deeply Southern cautionary tale for Republicans who told themselves that the tea party threat was receding and that the party could inch toward the center in 2016.
The county — where government spending is Public Enemy No. 1 despite receiving millions in federal aid after being smacked by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — also exemplifies the inherent contradictions of the tea party movement. In many ways, at least down here, these grass-roots true believers seem aimed at re-creating an America that no longer exists.
“We’re the Free State of Jones,” Richard Conrad, a soft-spoken, 50-year-old auditor at Sanderson Farms, said over early morning coffee at a Laurel Hardee’s restaurant. “You know, it’s just kind of leave us alone and keep the government away from us and we’ll all do just fine.”
“There’s been a stubborn cussedness on the part of Jones County that has become part of its cultural mystique,” said Rickey Cole, chairman of the state Democratic Party and a son of nearby Ovett. “This is the coming-of-age of ‘leave-me-alone-damn-it’ politics, and these are people who have been taught it from the cradle … . Chris is plugged in innately to a sense of populism and defiance toward authority. They just don’t like to be told what to do.”
The national narrative for the Magnolia State Senate race within the political class has centered on the liabilities of the courtly Cochran, who has lost a step or two or three as a campaigner at 76 and has struggled to trade blows with the telegenic McDaniel, a former talk radio host. In Hattiesburg last week, Cochran said he used to visit his grandmother in the Pine Belt as a kid and joked about “doing all sorts of indecent things with animals.” It appears not everyone in the crowd laughed.
But the Cochran agonistes storyline is misleading, as national narratives often are about a place most Washingtonians have never visited; if any know Laurel at all, it’s as the subject of rock troubadour (and Meridian native) Steve Forbert’s once popular tune, “Goin’ Down to Laurel,” a place he described as a “dirty, stinkin’ town, yeah.”
In a couple of days of interviews in Jones County, the universal view of Cochran was as a decent and honorable man who is no longer in touch with the issues that are important to Jones County Republicans. Cochran is a creature of Washington; Jones Countians loathe the Washington establishment. He is an appropriator; Jones Countians see the nation’s mounting debt as an existential threat to their very way of life.
Even Conrad, who heads up the Jones County tea party chapter, says the group’s influence on McDaniel’s rise to prominence has been overblown. He and others say the grass-roots passions here are not strictly constitutionalist so much as they are anti-Washington and anti-establishment — a final, generational revocation of the Southern dependence on D.C. as a fount of federal dollars.
“No, it’s not tea party,” said state Rep. Gary Staples, who represents the area and was in Laurel for a Jones County Republican Women’s luncheon at which McDaniel made a brief appearance. “It’s against the establishment. It’s against the fear that people have here that people in Washington have piled up a bill that their kids and grandkids are left to pay off.”
Lew Yoder, a Laurel lawyer who heads the Jones County GOP and therefore has remained neutral in the party primary, agrees. “I think the national media has it dead wrong; it’s not the tea party versus the Republican establishment. It’s regular folks versus the establishment, the ‘we want a fighter’ argument … Chris has the narrative of, at some point, it has to stop and we need someone who’s not going to be part of the Washington system and who’s going to fight against the growth of government. Some people just believe it’s time for a change.”
McDaniel’s rise has similarly unsettled Mississippi’s political status quo, and almost certainly is going to lead to grass-roots challenges against other establishment Republicans, possibly including Gov. Phil Bryant, who faces reelection next year.
McDaniel’s mother, Charlotte, in an interview published in the Laurel Leader-Call, said Bryant’s support for Cochran, as well as the endorsement given by state Auditor Stacey Pickering (a Jones County native), was a betrayal of her son.
“That hurt, when they all turned their backs on him,” she told the newspaper, adding that she wasn’t surprised about some members of the state’s Republican power structure backing Cochran, “but I was disappointed in Phil Bryant and Stacey Pickering. (Pickering) told someone that Chris knew he wanted that job. Well, he should’ve run for it.”
The McDaniel forces have also focused in on Mississippi’s illustrious Barbour family — former Gov. Haley Barbour and his two political operative nephews, Henry and Austin — as the personification of rich-guy Republicanism in their support for Cochran.
The McDaniel boomlet also, however, illustrates the difficulties the new conservative movement has in translating its fervor into a pragmatic political philosophy. Democrats are already typecasting McDaniel as the Todd Akin/Christine O’Donnell of this cycle — and while he’s hardly the barefoot, mouth-breathing Southern stereotype that some are conjuring, there are elements of the campaign that would give more centrist voters pause.
The intrusion into the living quarters of Cochran’s wife, Rose, at St. Catherine’s Village nursing home in Madison County has been denounced by McDaniel — but the ties between the men arrested in the incident and the Mississippi tea party and McDaniel personally will be gold for Democrats in a general election if McDaniel is the nominee.
There is an air of 1950s Mississippi to the McDaniel campaign that may not strike all voters as a paean to the good old days. At the Laurel luncheon, there was no person of color joining the several dozen attendees to enjoy fried chicken, rice and gravy and crowder peas. The only African-Americans on hand were service workers — and the Rev. Allen King, of the West Laurel United Methodist Church, offered thanks for “the Christian men and women” in government in his pre-meal prayer.
McDaniel’s years as a radio host have already yielded audio of him saying he wouldn’t pay taxes if Congress passed slavery reparations and blaming “hip-hop culture” for gun violence and failing schools. And Democrats think a well-funded opposition research team can find lots more.
And there is also a more substantive policy contradiction in McDaniel’s message and the past history of his followers, particularly in Jones County. One of the campaign’s central messages is a drastic reduction in federal spending. But it is federal dollars that have largely built the modern state of Mississippi; the Tax Foundation ranks the state first in terms of federal aid as a percentage of state revenue.
Sid Salter, the dean of Mississippi political columnists, wrote recently that a Cochran defeat could lead to the worst possible result for any self-respecting Mississippian: handing an economic advantage to Alabama!
Salter’s theory: If Cochran loses, Alabama’s Richard Shelby could be Senate Appropriations chairman and Sen. Jeff Sessions the chairman of the Budget Committee. “So for Mississippians — political philosophies aside — the practical stakes of the GOP Senate second primary remains whether state voters choose to retain the invaluable seniority they already have given Cochran to give our state powerful influence in the federal spending process or voters choose to cede that influence to our neighbors and direct economic development competitors across the state line in Alabama,” Salter wrote.
There is also the issue of Katrina. Jones County, while some 85 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, was directly in the monster storm’s path as it rampaged inland in 2005; 12 people died and massive damage was inflicted.
McDaniel, when first asked about his stance on Katrina aid by POLITICO in February, equivocated on whether he would have signed on to the multibillion-dollar legislation. He ultimately said he would have supported it but not allowed the fraud, waste and misspent funds.
But if Jones County has an overriding message for Republicans in the rest of the nation, it is to ignore these angry, motivated folks at your peril. Yes, GOP incumbents have learned that if they actually run a campaign and spend some money, they have a good chance to turn back tea party-inspired challengers. But the fury at Washington and the feeling that the Washington elite is in on a joke that the rest of the country doesn’t get aren’t going away — and they could bubble up in unexpected ways. Like in Eric Cantor’s district. Or in the early primary and caucus states of 2016.
“We are not extremists. We are patriots. We are Mississippians,” McDaniel said here last week. “Now is the time to save the Republic.”
Back in the Civil War days, historians say Newton Knight had a similar motto: “There’s lots of ways I’d ruther die than be scared to death.”