Mississippi Sen. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranBottom Line Mike Espy announces Mississippi Senate bid Biden has a lot at stake in first debate MORE (R) has become one of the most powerful men in Washington. Now chairman of the influential Appropriations Committee, Cochran has emerged from a field of derisive GOP in-fighting to once again assume the role of a Senate power broker. Yet, Cochran’s rise to power came as a surprise to many in the party who assumed his bid for reelection would wither at the feet of dissatisfied Republican primary voters. 

Facing a tough primary battle in 2014, Cochran turned to his state's large black constituency for support. Despite the Republican's persistently tone-deaf messaging on race, these voters delivered a stunning victory for the elder Republican statesman and helped secure his political legacy.


Cochran owes the black voters of his state a great political debt, which begs the question, what will he do to pay them back?

With the help of right-wing groups like FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth,Tea Party favorite Chris McDaniel waged an impressive dark horse campaign against the six-term Mississippi senator. McDaniel, who is well known as a fiery conservative commentator, was relentless in casting Cochran as an anathema to the ultra-conservative values of his state. In particular, conservatives raised concerns about Cochran's residency and his reputation as a big-government earmarker. With momentum surging behind McDaniel's candidacy, Cochran's defeat appeared inevitable. 

Lucky for the Republican establishment, Mississippi has an open primary system, where voters can support candidates irrespective of their political affiliation. Abandoned by the flanks of his own party, Cochran appealed to Democratic-leaning black voters who eagerly rallied around him.

While such a daring political move may have caused Cochran to lose any Tea Party bona fides he had left, the electoral boost ultimately denied McDaniel a spot on the November ballot and he soared to victory against his Democratic opponent. Analysis from FiveThirtyEight confirms that Cochran outperformed McDaniel in predominantly black counties and their support cemented his 2-point lead in the final primary match.

Cochran didn't come from the same tradition of obstructionism that’s become the modus operandi of the Senate's new Tea Party vanguard. Regardless, we should hesitate to call him a moderate because he has too often prioritized the factions in his party over the people of his state.

According to data from the policy group Spotlight on Poverty, Mississippians have continued to struggle through a depressed economy even as other states have rebounded from the recession. The human implications of this are vast; Mississippi’s rate of unemployment, child poverty, and food insecurity are all higher than the national average. Furthermore, Black families were among the demographic groups hit hardest by the recession. This fact has prompted Congressional Black Caucus leaders like Rep. Marcia FudgeMarcia Louise FudgeGabbard calls on DNC chairman to step down after Iowa 'debacle' DNC chairman says he's 'absolutely not' considering resigning Key House Democrat says Perez must go: 'He doesn't lead on anything' MORE (D-Ohio) to comment

“Mississippi is the poorest state in the union... I think he is a very decent man. I also think there comes a point in time where every single elected official has to do what’s best for the people he represents, and his state is 35 percent minority and poor."

To his credit, Cochran has been good at bringing millions of dollars of much-needed development to Mississippi. Yet, his inability to take a stand against his caucus’ attack on social welfare programs echoes a concern shared by many Mississippi voters who continue to suffer despite all the pork-barrel spending.

Cochran is now well positioned to help the voters of his state pull their families out of gripping poverty. His new job as chair of the Appropriations Committee means that he’ll be able to control the funding for projects related to transportation, defense, and agriculture. Sure, this means he’ll have a greater say in what economically lucrative projects get awarded to his home state, but he’ll also have the power to lobby his colleagues on issues important to the people that got him elected. Unemployment insurance, child-care tax credits, and job training programs are all policies that Republicans have pushed back on in response to the deficit. Perhaps Cochran can use his influence to change the Republican's tenor on these issues of poverty.

While remedying economic hardship is an obvious concern, there are other issues like voting rights and police accountability that he should tackle as well. As a southern state once at the helm of Jim Crow, Mississippi has a checkered past with voting rights, which has only become more complicated in the wake of the Supreme Court’s gutting of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Congress has the power to revamp the law, but the specter of supposed voter fraud has killed any prospects.

Meanwhile, Mississippians continue to be disenfranchised as new state voting laws now require citizens to provide a government-issued photo ID to cast a ballot. Poor minority voters may not have the means to obtain such identification, which systematically excludes them from the democratic process without any hope of legal recourse. Cochran voted for the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006. Now in 2015, he should use his power to push his colleagues in the same direction.

On the issue of police accountability, there has been noise about ending federal programs that give surplus military weapons to local law enforcement agencies. The calls for reform have gotten louder in the wake of the protests in Ferguson. Black communities are often the targets of excessive force caused by police militarization and a lack of independent oversight. Considering the large communities of color in his state, Cochran should pay attention to the divisions forming between police and the public. There is already significant support for reform from libertarian-leaning Republicans like Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate braces for fight over impeachment whistleblower testimony Pelosi names first-ever House whistleblower ombudsman director The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in MORE (R-Ky.), but a push from an establishment character like Cochran might make the difference.

If the 2014 Republican primaries taught us anything, it’s that even in Mississippi, politics makes strange bedfellows. Cochran has routinely traded his political sensibilities for allegiance to a right-wing fringe that wants nothing more than to purge him from his party. Now that he’s proven he can win an election without their support, he’s got to have the courage to serve his constituents in a way that reflects the confidence they have entrusted in him.

Watanable is a freelance political writer specializing in identity and electoral politics.