GAUTIER, Miss. (AP) — Republican primary challenger Chris McDaniel puts the nation's $17 trillion debt at the center of his bid to represent Mississippi in the Senate, bashing six-term Sen. Thad Cochran as a profligate spender who has contributed to a problem that McDaniel considers "immoral."
At the same time, the potential tea party hero pledges support for Mississippi's military installations, defense contractors and public education system — all of which depend on hundreds of millions of federal dollars.
"We have to put aside some of our personal interests if we're going to save this republic," McDaniel told voters at a recent campaign stop on the state's Gulf Coast, then added, "I'm going to fight for the shipyards and our military."
Such attacks on Cochran for his years of steering federal money to his home state, mixed with promises to "fight for Mississippi" if elected to Congress, put McDaniel squarely in the rub faced by many conservative Republicans. Their opposition to higher taxes and increasing the nation's borrowing limit is sacrosanct, yet they find it difficult when talking to voters to detail what spending they'd cut to balance the nation's books.
"The thing that's really preposterous about some of these candidates is that they're against everything — except the things that voters are for," said Republican campaign consultant Bob McAlister, a veteran of several presidential campaigns in South Carolina. "Everybody wants to gut everything except that which affects them."
McDaniel led Cochran, 76, in the state's June 3 primary but failed to win the majority required to avoid a runoff. They meet again Tuesday in an election that gives tea party conservatives their best shot this year at knocking off an incumbent Republican senator.
For his part, Cochran has almost embraced McDaniel's attacks. The former Appropriations Committee chairman, who would likely return to his old post in a Republican-led Senate, seeks a seventh term with the promise to "do more for Mississippi." He discusses the government's debt and deficit only when asked.
"I think the debt is a problem we need to address and we do have in place a budget process that has undergone reforms and changes over time," Cochran said in an interview. "I want to be sure that we continue to be restrained when we are imposing taxes on the American people, be sure they're fair, the funds are really needed, and they're used consistently with the authority of the law."
As is the case for many tea party-backed candidates, how Washington raises and spends money is at the heart of McDaniel's campaign. The 41-year-old state senator wants to amend the Constitution to require a balanced budget, which this year would require shaving $500 billion out of the nation's $3.7 trillion in spending. That is about what the country will spend this year on Medicare.
He endorses repeal of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, including the insurance subsidies, and promises never to vote to raise the limit on how much debt the government can carry "unless it comes with serious spending cuts right then, not in some future Congress."
McDaniel emphasizes often that tax increases aren't an option, and says he would vote against any comprehensive plan that leaves any taxpayer — individual or corporate — with a higher tax burden than they have today.
Early in the campaign, McDaniel called the federal government's role in education "unconstitutional." That led to attacks from Cochran supporters, who noted that federal dollars pay for about a quarter of what Mississippi spends on its classrooms. McDaniel now says Mississippi doesn't necessarily have to go without that $800 million it gets from Washington every year for education.
He praises Mississippi's military outposts and private shipyards, which are driven by Pentagon contracts. Campaigning in the agricultural heartland of the Mississippi River Delta, he recently declined to say whether he'd support or oppose farm subsidies.
Changes in Medicare and Social Security, which account for about 40 percent of federal spending, "should only affect younger workers like me," McDaniel said. In describing his mother, a retired schoolteacher, he said, "She paid into the system, and she's due money back."
He cautions voters only generally that "hard choices" are ahead, but maintains that there are no conflicts in his positions. "Naturally, if our central government was doing the things it was supposed to be doing ... then there would be more than ample money to take care of the issues we need to take care of," he said.
McDaniel does mention some spending he'd eliminate, but his examples make for a tiny fraction of the budget: $1.5 billion to maintain empty government buildings, various research studies (usually with individual price tags of less than $1 million) and $146 million for first-class airline upgrades for federal workers.
Those are details that don't necessarily matter in Tuesday's runoff, said veteran Republican adviser Katon Dawson. "Opposing 'out-of-control' government spending is a winner in Republican primaries," Dawson said. "Whoever gets the high ground on that issue probably wins."
Associated Press writer Jeff Amy in Magee, Mississippi, contributed to this report.