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Is Thad Cochran’s win a win for earmarks?

This post has been updated.

From 2008 to 2010, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran (R) sponsored or co-sponsored 757 earmarks. He sponsored more earmarks than any other senator those three years, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. Those earmarks cost $2.6 billion — and he got a close reelection victory thrown in for free.

Not quite free — the recently concluded Republican Senate primary in Mississippi was an expensive one — but there's little doubt that Cochran's campaign-long defense of sending spending home helped him squeak out a win last night.

In the Republican primary in Mississippi, earmarks were always going to be Cochran's secret weapon ... or his worst enemy. Chris McDaniel's entire campaign was premised on the idea that government spending needed to be reined in, and he was running against the Senate's ur-spender.

Cochran devoted much of his campaign to defending his record on federal spending, as the Washington Post's Dan Balz explained on Tuesday.

"I think earmarks have gotten a bad name," Cochran told NPR in May. "For those who are opposed to that, [they] are for the federal agencies making the decision. This is supposed to be government of and by and for the people — not for the bureaucrats."

As Cochran points out, earmarks had already died everywhere except the tea party's list of establishment offenses. In 2010, Congress approved a moratorium on earmarks that is still in effect. It hasn't noticeably changed the amount of money being spent by the federal government; it has simply made it more difficult for legislators to steer that money back home.

Regardless of the realities of earmarking in 2014, McDaniel did a good job exciting the conservative voters who typically hit the polls during midterm primaries — such a good job that he forced a primary runoff that many simply saw as a wake for Cochran's career.

However, Cochran's campaign did an even better job getting voters who wouldn't normally turn out in a midterm Republican primary — moderate Republicans and black Democrats. The millions he raised from all the friends he helped over the years sure didn't hurt either.

Republican incumbents have assumed that shimmying to the right is the best defense against tea party challengers. Cochran's win — and the establishment's default strategy's spotty record — seriously challenges that.

Here's a look back at some of the spending numbers that defined Cochran's career — and this election.


Number of years Cochran has been in the Senate.


Number of Senate committees Cochran currently takes part in. He's the ranking member on the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry and he is also on Appropriations Committee — formerly as the chair — and the Committee on Rules and Administration. 


The number of federal earmarks in 2006, right before D.C. formally declared war on them.

1 percent

How much of the 2010 federal budget was devoted to earmarked spending.

46 percent

How much of Mississippi's state budget revenue came from the federal government from 2001 to 2012. In that time period, Mississippi became the only state in the nation to draw more than half of its budget from federal funds.


The number of articles that show up in Lexis-Nexis when you search "Thad Cochran" and "King of Pork." When you search "Thad Cochran" and "earmarks," 2,397 articles appear.


The number of University buildings in Mississippi named after Thad Cochran (at least). There is the Thad Cochran Center at the University of Southern Mississippi, the Thad Cochran Marine Aquaculture Center at the University of Southern Mississippi, the Thad Cochran Research, Technology and Economic Development Park at Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi Thad Cochran National Center for Natural Products Research.

In 2008, a study found that the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University received more earmarks than any other universities in the country.

Even if McDaniel had won, Cochran's career had done a good job of getting the state ready for his legacy. All of these buildings mean that Mississippi won't be forgetting him any time soon — regardless of whether you think said fruits of his labors were a good or bad thing.

Number of campaign ads run in the last week of the primary run-off featuring former NFL stars talking about Thad Cochran bringing federal funding back to Mississippi.


Amount appropriated to the Agricultural Research Service facility in Stoneville, Miss. in 1999 to study reminform nematodes. The facility also received $351,000 to study red imported fire ants.

This is the type of unglamorous and odd spending that gives earmarks a bad name. Bridges to Nowhere and nematode research don't sell well to a national audience. Voters want to see how federal spending helps them. If they don't see the connection, they often deem it a symptom of wasteful spending.

For people in Mississippi — and states across the South — studying the invasive red ant is important. The fire ants ruin electrical equipment, devastate crops across the country and are generally up to no good.

Voters can also have a difficult time contextualizing how much money Congress is appropriating to those nematodes. $500,000 is a lot of money to the average American. To legislators orchestrating the federal budget, it is pennies.

$800 million 

How much federal money Mississippi's K-12 education system receives annually. Another $400 million go to state universities and community colleges. When McDaniel said he opposed federal funding for education, Cochran's campaign quickly made it into an issue that showcased the importance of federal spending. McDaniel backtracked his statements against federal funding when it comes to education somewhat.

More than $17 million

How much money was spent on the GOP primary in Mississippi this year.


Amount of earmarked spending Cochran helped get in 2010 for three of the companies — General Atomics, Tenax Aerospace, and Raytheon — who were among his top five contributors in the 2014 primary.