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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Distortions in Mississippi GOP Primary

A super PAC supporting Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran is trying to turn the tables on his tea-party-backed challenger in the GOP primary, accusing state Sen. Chris McDaniel of being (of all things) soft on public debt. But to do that, the PAC’s TV ad is twisting the facts.

  • The ad criticizes McDaniel for “voting to increase Mississippi’s debt by $1.2 billion.” But that figure includes seven bills that didn’t become law, including one that never came up for a vote, and two bills that McDaniel did not approve on the final vote. The cost of the bills that raised the debt and for which McDaniel voted to give his final approval tallied $542.4 million over six years.
  • All of the bond bills that came up for a vote — whether they became law or not — had the overwhelming support of the 52-member state Senate. In fact, 20 of the 22 bills that came up for a Senate vote received 50 or more votes. The other two easily passed 41-0 and 46-5.
  • Nearly all of the approved debt was signed into law by then-Gov. Haley Barbour — who, according to his nephew and former campaign manager, is a fundraiser for the super PAC behind this attack ad.

Furthermore, the ad attacks McDaniel for “voting to fund” Common Core education standards. True, but the Common Core funding was included in annual education appropriations bills in 2012 and 2013 and totaled less than $600,000 – a mere fraction of the $4.1 billion that was included in those bills for Mississippi public schools. Like the bond bills, the appropriations bills had broad support. Both bills gained final approval without opposition: 51-0 and 50-0.

In other words, the ad attacks McDaniel for voting for routine bills that passed with overwhelmingly bipartisan support and, when signed into law, were often signed by the very man who is reportedly helping to finance this attack ad.

Mississippi State Debt

Mississippi Conservatives registered as a super PAC with the Federal Election Commission on Jan. 13. Its stated purpose is to help reelect Sen. Thad Cochran — a six-term senator who has been in Congress since 1973, first as a House member and then as a senator.

Henry Barbour, a lobbyist and adviser to Mississippi Conservatives PAC, told the New York Times that the group’s backers are concerned that the Republicans could lose the seat if McDaniel beats Cochran in the primary. “There are a lot of times these outside groups come in with a candidate like McDaniel, find a way to win the primary, but then lose the general election,” he said.

Henry Barbour also told the Times that his uncle, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, will help raise money for the group. (Henry Barbour was his uncle’s campaign manager in 2003.)

Haley Barbour, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, was critical of McDaniel’s challenge to Cochran in an interview last fall with the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss. “I think it is a losing strategy, because the public knows what Cochran’s done,” Barbour told the Clarion-Ledger. “But you’ve got a bunch of money from New York and all over from these groups that are putting up all the money and they are led by people who have said, ‘We would rather have 30 pure conservative senators than the majority.’ Well, I’d rather have the majority, so that conservatives can make the policies that set the direction for the country.”

Less than a month after forming, the Mississippi Conservatives PAC went up with its first ad, which is called “Who is Chris McDaniel?” The ad portrays McDaniel as a false conservative who says one thing and does another.

It asks: “Who is Chris McDaniel? … The one opposed to federal debt? Or the one voting to increase Mississippi’s debt by $1.2 billion?”

The $1.2 billion figure is inflated.

On its website, the group lists 23 bond bills that, if all were approved and signed into law, would have added $1.2 billion in debt to the state’s debt. But not all of them became law, and McDaniel didn’t vote for all of them on final approval.

  • Seven of the bills totaling $451.5 million did not advance and never became law. That includes one bill in 2010 that never came up for a vote (H.B. 403, which the group says was a $75 million bond bill).
  • McDaniel voted against S.B. 2913 in 2013 on final passage, even though he voted for it when it first came up in the Senate. That was a $16 million bond bill.
  • McDaniel voted for H.B. 1701 in 2010 on first passage, but did not cast a vote on final passage. That bill, according to the group’s tally, totaled $191.7 million.

That leaves 14 bills totaling $542.4 million that McDaniel voted for on final approval. Twelve of them were signed into law by Barbour.

In fact, of the 23 bills cited by the Mississippi Conservatives PAC as evidence of McDaniel’s lack of conviction, Barbour signed all 13 that went to his desk — increasing the state debt by $711.3 million. That includes one bill that McDaniel abstained from on the final vote (H.B. 1701 in 2010).

One could just as easily make the claim, using the Mississippi Conservatives’ own data, that Barbour increased the debt by more than McDaniel.

But, in fact, these bills were popular and rather routine. They authorized the state or its agencies, such as the Mississippi Development Authority, to sell bonds for economic development or various capital projects at universities, state colleges, community colleges and state buildings, as well as for highways, bridges and rail lines.

As we said earlier, all 22 of the bills that came up for a vote – whether they became law or not – had overwhelming support of the Senate, and regardless of which party was in power. The Republicans currently control 32 of the 52 Senate seats and have had a strong grip on the majority since 2012, but Democrats held a slim majority in 2009 through 2011, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

We found that 17 of the 22 bills passed on final approval without any opposition, and there was only token opposition to the other five bills (three were approved by a vote of 50-1, one by 50-2 and one by 46-5).

Common Core Standards

The ad also takes on McDaniel’s stated opposition to Common Core education standards, which the National Governors Association describes as a “state-led effort coordinated by the NGA Center [for Best Practices] and the Council of Chief State School Officers” to set standards for English and math in public elementary and high schools. The Common Core standards have become a flashpoint among conservatives because the Obama administration supports them and tied federal funding to them.

The ads say, “Who is Chris McDaniel? … The McDaniel opposed to Common Core education standards? Or the one voting to fund it in the state Senate?”

The ad’s fine print identifies those votes as H.B. 1593 in 2012 and H.B. 1648 in 2013. The ad is absolutely right that McDaniel voted for both bills — which were massive annual appropriations bills for the Mississippi schools. Both passed without a single vote of opposition. H.B. 1593 was a $2 billion bill that included $400,000 for Common Core professional development and $94,082 for Common Core literacy, and H.B. 1648 was a $2.1 billion bill that included $94,081 for Common Core literacy. So, the bills totaled $4.1 billion and included $588,163 for Common Core.

The ad is also right that McDaniel has been vocal in his opposition to the Common Core standards. He is the chairman of the Mississippi Senate Conservative Coalition, which formed in June 2013 to evaluate bills and take united positions on them. The group a month later came out with a press release criticizing the Common Core standards and urging the Legislature to proceed with caution before moving ahead to fully implement them.

The state school board adopted the Common Core standards in August 2010, when Haley Barbour was governor, but they will not be fully implemented until the 2014-2015 school year, according to the Mississippi Department of Education. Barbour was an early supporter of the Common Core standards and signed a memorandum of agreement in the spring of 2009 committing Mississippi to the development of such standards, according to a recent report to the Legislature by the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review.

The Associated Press last year called McDaniel the leader of the “ultra-conservative faction” that “has been actively promoting opposition” to the education plan.

Associated Press, Dec. 23, 2013: Protesters say Common Core is a cave-in to the federal government, that data collection will violate children’s privacy, and that the curriculum is a threat to Christianity.

The state Senate’s ultra-conservative faction, led by Republican Chris McDaniel of Ellisville, has been actively promoting opposition, appearing at local school board meetings and in other forums. They argue that Common Core standards are not truly rigorous and that they are a “one-size-fits-all national testing experiment” that’s wrong for Mississippi.

We take no position on the merits of the Common Core standards. We merely point out that the TV ad from the Barbour-backed group overstates its case by omission, not commission. Yes, McDaniel voted for Common Core funding, but it was a small amount in massive bills to fund the state’s public schools that were passed without objection. And the Common Core standards had the early support of the former governor who is reportedly raising money to help underwrite the ad that accuses McDaniel of being deficient in his opposition to the Common Core standards.

Whether McDaniel is sufficiently conservative is something for Republican voters to decide in the primary, but this ad doesn’t give them the facts to make that decision.

— Eugene Kiely, with Madeleine Stevens