MERIDIAN Miss. (Reuters) - Voters in Mississippi cast ballots on Tuesday that will decide whether to retire a veteran U.S. senator who has steered billions of dollars to his impoverished state, in the latest showdown between the Republican establishment and its insurgent Tea Party wing.
The election, a runoff between Senator Thad Cochran and challenger state Senator Chris McDaniel, has become a multimillion-dollar referendum on the direction of the Republican Party. This year’s primary season has pitted the party’s business-friendly wing against groups that place a premium on small government.
Senior Republican lawmakers in Kentucky, Idaho and Texas, aided by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, have turned back primary challengers who argued that the incumbents are too willing to compromise with President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats.
But the stunning upset two weeks ago of Representative Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House of Representatives, by a little-known candidate showed that clout in Washington is no guarantee of victory back home.
Turnout was slow Tuesday morning at three predominantly African-American polling places in Jackson.
Cochran, 78, has been re-elected by wide margins since he first won a seat in Congress in 1972, and courthouses and research centers throughout the state bear his name.
Cochran has channeled billions of federal dollars to Mississippi for shipbuilding, highways, crop subsidies, disaster relief and other projects. The state, which has the lowest median income in the United States, depends on that money, and the jobs it creates, for nearly half of its budget.
“If you’ve got a good thing going, don’t ruin it,” said retiree Jim Cantey, 78, at a diner in Meridian, Mississippi.
McDaniel argues that Cochran’s nuts-and-bolts approach is out of step with voters in his deeply conservative state.
Ken Flynt, a Meridian business owner, said he voted for McDaniel over concerns that the national debt is too high and because he wants to see cuts in government spending.
“We’ve got to wean ourselves from it,” he said. “We’ve got to get away from looking to the federal government from the womb to the tomb.”
Cochran has spent $4 million so far on his re-election, and business groups such as the National Association of Realtors have poured in another $4 million.
McDaniel has spent $1.5 million, but he has been helped by more than $7 million in outside spending by conservative groups such as the Club for Growth.
McDaniel edged Cochran in a June 4 primary but failed to win 50 percent of the vote, prompting the runoff.
The winner will be strongly favored to defeat Democrat Travis Childers in the Nov. 4 election.
Republicans need to pick up six seats to win control of the 100-seat U.S. Senate, which would give them greater leverage to oppose Obama’s agenda during his remaining two years in the White House.
Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan in Washington; Editing by Alistair Bell and Tom Brown