Haley Barbour almost certainly isn't running for office again in Mississippi, but the former governor, onetime Republican National Committee chief and influential Washington lobbyist is playing a prominent role in the state's battle for the GOP Senate nomination.
Barbour is the patriarch of a politically savvy family driving Sen. Thad Cochran's bid for a seventh term. Challenger Chris McDaniel and his tea party allies are holding up the GOP elder statesman as more proof that Cochran is little more than a creature of Washington.
"You'd be hard-pressed to find a more desperate person than a Washington lobbyist who thinks his fees are being threatened," said Barney Keller, a spokesman for the Club for Growth, which has spent $2.5 million backing McDaniel. The candidates, neither of whom won the GOP nomination outright in the primary this month, are fighting it out ahead of a June 24 runoff.
"Haley Barbour is supposed to be all-powerful, but he's losing a race in his own backyard," Keller added. "And his influence business in Washington will take a big hit when he no longer has a Mississippi senator in his back pocket."
Barbour shot back that the Washington-based activist groups are trying to hijack the election for their own gain.
"Everyone knows they couldn't care less about Mississippi," Barbour said in an interview. "This is about their national agenda of staying relevant. They've lost every single Senate nomination. Cochran is the last scalp that they might get. So they're throwing the kitchen sink at him."
Tea party-backed candidates have struggled for relevance in the 2014 Senate races, losing primaries to establishment-backed candidates in North Carolina, Kentucky and other states. But a conservative insurgent in Virginia this week injected excitement into other GOP challengers when little-known candidate Dave Brat took out House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a district near Richmond.
The next test of anti-Washington sentiment is Mississippi's brutal runoff between McDaniel, a state senator who says the state needs a change, and Cochran, whose seniority and former Appropriations Committee chairmanship have reaped jobs and federal dollars for one of the poorest states in the nation.
McDaniel himself is more circumspect about Barbour, but he casts the former RNC chairman as the face of Washington power that has too much control over Mississippi.
To hear him tell it, Cochran's "campaign is being funded by Washington lobbyist and insiders," a reference to the pro-Cochran super PAC that Barbour helped start and that his nephew Henry Barbour runs.
It's all quickly become part of the standard attacks on Cochran's re-election effort.
"The people that we're fighting with are self-anointed Republican strategists whose day jobs is lobbying," FreedomWorks chief Matt Kibbe said.
"Chris McDaniel is un-lobby-able. Meaning, they can't get him to do what they want him to do when he's elected. So it's bad for their business," Kibbe added.
Michael Watson, a tea party leader who serves in the state Senate with McDaniel, said Barbour's role is a powerful reminder that the insurgent challenger faces entrenched political muscle.
"Gov. Barbour wants to talk about all this outside money and say, 'These folks don't care about Mississippi,' but everyone remembers what he did at the national party and how much he raised for his re-election here," Watson said. "It absolutely helps Chris to remind folks that, 'Uh-oh, here comes Haley's machine.'"
Barbour has used his clout to go after McDaniel in ways Cochran has not. Barbour has criticized McDaniel for saying the federal government should not have a role in education and for calling the Education Department, which Cochran voted to create, unconstitutional.
State records show that for the current budget year, Mississippi is spending about $3.3 billion on elementary and secondary education. About $800 million of that, or 25 percent, comes from the federal government. And that sum doesn't account for spending at community colleges or universities that receive federal dollars. It also leaves out student loans and grants, faculty grants, job training programs or funding for students with special needs.
"That will all be gone if McDaniel gets his way," Barbour said.
The Club for Growth quickly spotted comments Barbour made in 2012 that seemed to support efforts to abolish the federal department.
"Being for getting rid of the department certainly doesn't mean you want to get rid of public education," Barbour told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast.
The Club for Growth said Barbour's remarks smacked of hypocrisy.
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