Mississippi retains an institution in U.S. Senate and in agriculture

By Jim Webster

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, June 25, 2014 - Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who combined southern charm and steely determination to become one of the most effective lawmakers of his generation, fought off a tea party rebellion Tuesday to win the Republican nomination to serve a seventh term, defeating 41-year-old State Sen. Chris McDaniel in a primary runoff election.

The Associated Press reported that the 76-year-old Cochran, held a lead of over 6,000 votes, winning 50.8 percent of the vote to McDaniel's 49.2 percent with 99.9 percent of precincts reporting. Cochran's team convinced both long-time GOP supporters and many Democrats to show up at the voting booths Tuesday. Over 372,000 people voted in the runoff election, compared to 318,902 who voted in the June 3 primary, which Cochran narrowly lost.

Cochran has exercised outsized influence in agricultural policy over more than 50 years in Congress. From his first term on the House Agriculture Committee in 1973, he paid attention to commodities important to Mississippi - rice, cotton, soybeans and more recently catfish.

Lets Talk Food

First elected to the Senate in 1978, he used his influence as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee (2003-05) and Senate Appropriations Committee (2005-07) and his current position as ranking Republican on the agriculture panel to protect those commodity interests.

His legislative effectiveness was demonstrated in enactment of a farm bill last year when he brokered a deal that improved the programs for mostly southern crops such as rice and peanuts from an earlier version that had been seen as more favorable to Midwestern commodities.

Cochran's defense of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helped keep food stamps in the farm bill when tea party House Republicans sought to split the two in an effort to weaken support for both. He said SNAP belonged in the farm bill because it helped pass farm programs and defended nutrition assistance because his state has heavy participation in the program. More than one in five Mississippians are dependent on food stamps.

The most recent example of his clout on behalf of Mississippi agriculture came May 30 when USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service submitted to the Office of Management and Budget a final rule to establish a catfish inspection program. Cochran has fought for several years to give inspection authority to USDA for domestic and imported catfish in place of what he called an inadequate FDA program that examines less than 2 percent of imported catfish.

His ability to win federal money for projects in Mississippi may rival that of an earlier congressional appropriator, the late Jamie Whitten, who chaired both the House Appropriations Committee and its agriculture subcommittee. His accomplishments were recognized in the 2025 USDA spending bill that renamed the Agricultural Research Service research facility at Poplarville, Mississippi, the Thad Cochran Southern Horticultural Laboratory.

Time magazine called him one of “America's 10 Best Senators” in 2006, citing his mastery of farm policy and his success in earmarking $29 billion for relief of damage from Hurricane Katrina, “almost double the money [President George W.] Bush and congressional leaders had initially pledged.” Ironically, two others on the magazine's list - Sens. Richard Lugar of Indiana and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania - later were unseated by more conservative challengers.

Cochran's legacy in Washington will outlive his service in Congress. Since 1984, USDA has been administering the Cochran Fellowship Program to provide short-term training for agricultural professionals from middle income countries, emerging markets and emerging democracies.

Cochran fellows come to the United States, generally for two to three weeks, to work with universities, government agencies and private companies to enhance technical knowledge and skills in areas related to agricultural trade, development, management, policy and marketing. To date, the program has provided training for more than 14,300 fellows from 123 countries.

While McDaniel's campaign had financial support and volunteers from national tea party organizations, Cochran benefited from campaign contributions from national farm-related groups who recognized his long-time support for agricultural interests in Congress.

Farm, food and agribusiness executives and political action committees have donated more than $679,000 to his re-election committee, according to Federal Election Commission reports compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. In all, Cochran had collected more than $4.46 million through the end of May, compared with $1.5 million for McDaniel. Outside group spending is not included.

Cochran's major backers were PACs of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association ($35,000) and National Cotton Council ($31,000). Individual executives and employees of Sanderson Farms, a large chicken processor based in Laurel, Mississippi, contributed $27,800. Other PAC donations: Chicago's CME Group ($24,000), American Bankers Association ($20,000), American Association of Crop Insurers ($19,500), California Dairies ($15,000), National Rural Water Association ($13,500), American Cotton Shippers Association ($10,000), Farm Credit Council ($10,000), National Chicken Council ($8,500), American Sugar Cane League ($8,000), Florida Sugar Cane League ($7,500) and American Farm Bureau Federation ($7,500).

Over the years, several Cochran staff members - many of them agricultural economists trained at Mississippi State - advanced to top-level government and private sector positions. Among them:

-- Wayne Boutwell, who became CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives in Washington and later CEO of Southern States Cooperative in Richmond, Virginia.

-- David Graves, who also headed NCFC and now represents the American Association of Crop Insurers for the McLeod, Watkinson and Miller law and lobbying firm.

-- Mark Keenum, who became under secretary of agriculture for farm and foreign agricultural services, is now president of Mississippi State.

-- Hunt Shipman, who was deputy under secretary for farm and foreign agricultural services and executive vice president of the Food Processors Association, now lobbies for Cornerstone Government Affairs, representing United Egg Producers, U.S. Rice Producers Association, American Sheep Industry Association and other clients.

-- Hunter Moorhead, special assistant to the president for farm and trade policy during the second Bush Administration, now at Crossroads Strategies, representing the Corn Refiners Association.

-- Keith Heard, one-time head of the National Corn Growers Association Washington office, later with several lobby groups. Recently he's represented the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, which contributed $11,500 to the Cochran campaign.

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