Size really does matter when breaking down how Mississippi’s business sector will vote in Tuesday’s Republican senatorial primary runoff.
The larger the business the more likely the sentiments will fall to incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran, who has been in Washington longer than 42-year-old tea party challenger and Mississippi Senate member Chris McDaniel has been on the planet. Cochran can pull the levers of government in a way that few other Washington lawmakers can match, his supporters in business say.
It’s the pullers of those levers, on the other hand, that small business owners blame for the squeeze they feel, says Dr. Marty Wiseman, recently retired executive director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government & Community Development at Mississippi State University.
“Those that have the bigger operations and more of a presence beyond one county and one town have a pretty good understanding that Cochran brings money and projects to the state,” Wiseman, who has observed an analyzed Mississippi politics for decades, said in an interview Monday.
“When you get to the mom-and-pop type thing they don’t like the difference in the gross” receipts they bring in and what the government takes out, he noted.
“I do think there is a divide there that is just about like what you see in the general population.”
A Washington Post analysis earlier this month noted that the GOP’s national leaders are generally close to business interests, but both libertarians and tea party activists within the Republican Party are suspicious of those interests.
Randolph-Macon College economics professor Dave Bratt, a tea partier who took down House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, said as much after his June 10 victory. “I will fight to end crony capitalist programs that benefit the rich and powerful,” he pledged in the same Post article.
Rick Santorum, a McDaniel supporter and former GOP presidential primary contender, emphasized the split in an address of 2012’s Iowa State Republican Convention, saying big business and the interests of rank-and-file Republicans have gone their separate ways.
“Years ago, when I was growing up, the Republican Party was the country club set,” the Post article reported he told the Iowa audience.
“If you look at the surveys right now, those folks aren’t voting Republican anymore.”
But the GOP leadership has not noticed, said Santorum, who recently campaigned in Mississippi for McDaniel.
In Mississippi, said Wiseman, the sector in which a business operates often determines the political loyalties of its executives. If the business relies on federally funded projects or infrastructure, it’s likely to fall in behind traditional GOP leaders such as Cochran, he said.
For instance, noted Wiseman, “highway contractors and constructors that benefit a great deal from big dollar projects understand where the money comes from.”
Add shipbuilders to that list as well, says Bill Crawford, a Meridian-based syndicated columnist and former deputy director of the Mississippi Development Authority.
Crawford has filled his columns of late with warnings of the bad things in store for Mississippi businesses should McDaniel prevail Tuesday. He has put a special emphasis on the risk a McDaniel victory could pose for the future of the state’s largest private sector employer, Ingalls Shipbuilding in Jackson County.
He notes the House Appropriations Committee this month dropped funding from its 2015 defense appropriations bill for the next amphibious warship (LPD 28) to be built by Ingalls
“That puts approximately 3,000 Ingalls’ jobs on the firing line,” Crawford wrote in a recent Mississippi Business Journal column.
Crawford says he thinks voters in Jackson County played Russian roulette with their economic future by voting for McDaniel over Cochran, whom he calls “the only member of Mississippi’s congressional delegation with enough seniority to fund ships for Ingalls Shipbuilding.”
Wiseman said the irony is that “the guy at the shipyard leaving the 4 a.m. shift is saying,‘It’s time for Thad to go.’”
McDaniel’s promises to go to bat to save Ingalls’ contracts but otherwise cut every federal dollar he can, including the vast sums that come into Mississippi, leave Wiseman skeptical.
The vow to protect the shipbuilding jobs, Wiseman said, was “just a way to get himself out of the room.”
Much the same occurred in the Delta in a talk with farmers when the subject of crop price supports and crop insurance subsidies arose, according to Wiseman.
To say “‘we will do all in our power to make sure the farmer is treated well’ shows a lack of understanding by McDaniel on how things work” in keeping farm prices sound and within reach of the average American’s budget, he said.
Joel Bomgar, a self-made millionaire, job creator and McDaniel backer, would say such federal meddling only distorts the nation’s farm economy.
He would call the price supports and subsidized insurance “earmarks” that only “divert economic activity to whatever has been earmarked.”
His view, Bomgar said, “is that Mississippi wins when we have the most free market, vibrant economy possible,” and added he thinks a lot of the state’s business leaders simply want “the autonomy to do what is best for them and their businesses.”
The chairman of the board and founder of Ridgeland’s Bomgar Corp., a worldwide provider of remote computer network security support that employees more than 200 workers locally, said he thinks McDaniel is riding a wave. The wave is propelled by citizens who believe government has slipped far too deeply into the control of special interests, he noted.
He said he’s betting McDaniel can help initiate a reversal by working with other independent thinkers in Congress. The challenger, he said, “is the one who stands for less government and free markets.”
Though still in his early 30s, the Belhaven University graduate and tech sector entrepreneur said he has paid attention to politics and policies long enough to know “the principles I believe in are not being reflected in the incumbent.”
The coveted access to Washington that Cochran offers Mississippi’s businesses creates “incredibly high incentives to distort a free market to your benefit.”
The fastest way to accomplish that is to get close to politicians who control the rules, Bomgar said.
He said he sees a lot of effort going into slicing up the pie when “a lot more focus is needed on making the pie bigger.”
Often it’s regulators who determine the degree of difficulty getting a piece of the pie involves. If you have an advocate who can put you in front of the regulatory decision-maker, the better your chance of avoiding hardships, says Indianola petroleum businessman Walton Gresham.
He has relied on Cochran to fill that role, said Gresham, who took over as Delta Council president in May but emphasized his praise of Cochran reflects his own views and not the Delta Council’s.
With Cochran’s help, he said, a petroleum marketer can go to Washington and meet with a key federal Department of Transportation official to explain the obstacles new DOT rules have on truck drivers in Mississippi. “He can get you into that meeting and help explain your point of view,” Gresham said.
“From a petroleum marketer’s point of view, I have been a supporter of Thad Cochran forever.”
Continued access to Washington decision-makers is of equal concern in the Golden Triangle, where defense-related manufacturing and a major Air Force flight training base have helped to spur economic growth across a region that includes Columbus, West Point and Starkville.
Thirty-year Columbus lawyer Gordon Flowers said his clients in manufacturing have expressed “a real concern that we in Mississippi continue to have access to a senator with seniority.”
Added Flowers: “We are appreciative of what Sen. Cochran has done.”
Wiseman, the former Stennis Institute of Government chief, says his analysis of the Republican senatorial primary has led him to conclude that many voters do not fully grasp the reality of Mississippi as the nation’s poorest state. “The basic thing is that if people could realize this, they could deal with it in a much more upfront fashion,” he said. “Federal dollars coming into a state like Mississippi circulate several times. It is money they won’t have in their pockets” if Washington falls into tea party hands, he added.
Wiseman noted Mississippi gets back $3.17 for each dollar it sends to Washington. Further, federal money funds just short of 49 percent of the state’s budget, he added.
If Mississippi were a private enterprise, “we would cease being a going concern” without the federal money, he said.
Bomgar, the McDaniel backer, would call Wiseman’s lament an overstatement. “The vast majority of the dollars that come into the state are independent of who is in the United States Senate,” he said.
He added, however, that he thinks all states would benefit by becoming less dependent on federal spending. “A lot of the spending is not helpful.”
Nor is it sustainable, he added.
“That which is not sustainable will stop. It will stop because it implodes under its own weight.”