By JEREMY HERB and PHILIP EWING
A specter is haunting Tuesday’s Senate primary in Mississippi and many other midterm races around the country: BRAC.
The intraparty showdown between the Magnolia State’s long-serving Republican Sen. Thad Cochran and his tea party challenger, Chris McDaniel, not only pits the old guard against the new and the Republican establishment against the tea party. It has also become the latest test zone for the politics of the base realignment and closure process.
“Sen. Cochran has the power and experience to protect the Gulf Coast,” former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) says in a Cochran campaign ad. “Over the years, we had to fight for funds and contacts for Ingalls [shipyard], and to maintain programs at Keesler [Air Force Base], the [Navy] Seabee Base and Stennis Space Center … Without Thad Cochran, we could lose some of these important facilities.”
Political and military observers across the U.S. — but especially inside the Beltway — are watching the race for clues about how to make their next moves in the war over military base closures and consolidations.
It’s not just Mississippi. All around the country, incumbents and challengers alike are playing up BRAC prominently in their races, arguing they can make the difference to ensure a local base or shipyard stays open.
Traditionally, voters reward politicians who bring home the bacon, or at least protect the existing supply. But anti-spending tea party conservatives say they reject the “where’s mine?” school. They say they want to drive down government spending above all, including on weapons, bases and some aspects of national security.
A key question for Mississippi will be which side wins the argument — although, as with so many things in politics, the reality is a little murkier.
“BRAC is one of these issues where people tend to have cognitive dissonance,” said Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “On the one hand, everyone wants to cut wasteful government spending. But they also want to protect jobs in their districts.”
That can make base closures a difficult issue for Republicans. The Pentagon says it doesn’t need about 25 percent of its bases, buildings and real estate, meaning it effectively throws away billions of dollars a year. With budget ceilings imposed by Congress and the possibility of sequestration returning again in fiscal 2016, the Defense Department seems likely to press even harder to get rid of its unwanted infrastructure and free up as much cash as possible.
Lawmakers have made it perfectly clear they won’t approve a new base closure round this year, but that hasn’t stopped the issue from being invoked frequently back home in congressional races. Local officials say they are vigilant because Congress won’t be able to hold off a new BRAC round forever.
“There are now permanent standing committees, loose committees, in virtually every military locality in the country,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “They’re in constant preparation mode for a BRAC that could happen, in their minds, at any time … And so [for] candidates for office, opposing BRAC is as natural as the instinct to run from a bear.”
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James acknowledged to reporters that the Pentagon’s request for BRAC is probably dead this year, the latest failed bid in three years. But she also said she expected the Defense Department to request it again next year and keep on campaigning because of how much cash the government now wastes.
“As a person who came out of business, I can tell you, the last thing that a corporation would do would be to spend money on facilities that they no longer needed,” she said. “The first thing you would do in business is consolidate your facilities, get them off your books and harvest that money so that you could plow it back to your shareholders, or your people, or to your R&D. You would never, never, never run a business that way.”
“Now, I realize government is not a business,” she added, “but there are some things that just make common sense. I think we’re going to continue to press that one as well.”
If the Pentagon’s campaign for BRAC isn’t going away, neither are the political difficulties it causes for members of Congress — or its use as a weapon in local campaigns.
In Pennsylvania, Art Halvorson, a retired Coast Guard captain who unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Bill Shuster in his Republican primary this year, said Shuster used BRAC to his advantage by claiming he could protect Letterkenny Army Depot in Pennsylvania’s 9th District. It worked, he said, even though the world is probably safe from BRAC for 2014.
“It was fear-mongering because he was trying to make it sound like it’s an issue this year and it’s not,” Halvorson told POLITICO. “Either directly or indirectly, he made it sound like he had clout and I didn’t.”
A Shuster spokesman, Sean Joyce, said the congressman “recognizes that BRAC is one of the biggest threats to the largest employer of Franklin County.”
“Throughout his many meetings and town halls, the one recurring theme that seems to be on everyone’s mind is preparing for yet another BRAC round,” Joyce said. “He will continue to use his position as a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee to fight for Letterkenny.”
Likewise in New Jersey’s 3rd District, where Republican Tom MacArthur and Democrat Aimee Belgard are battling over who could best protect Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, which was formed by a past BRAC from a separate Army post and an Air Force base.
“We have certainly made it an issue for them,” said Kristi Howell, chief executive of the Burlington County Regional Chamber of Commerce. “We are doing our part to educate them on it and showing them the magnitude of the leadership that’s involved.”
Howell said the local chamber is worried about a freshman taking over for retiring Republican Rep. Jon Runyan.
“Congressman Runyan has clout down there,” she said. “Now you have someone without clout and just getting started. And then you’ve got to be concerned about who ends up being in the minority, and does our congressman who represents the largest joint base in the nation end up in the minority and not on a committee of any significance?”
In Georgia’s 11th District, former Rep. Bob Barr and state Sen. Barry Loudermilk are squaring off in a Republican primary runoff to succeed Republican Rep. Phil Gingrey.
There, Dobbins Air Reserve Base and the local Lockheed plant are fixtures in endorsements the two candidates have traded. The mayor of Marietta, where Dobbins is based, said Loudermilk would ”encourage pro-growth policies and help protect our local assets like Dobbins,” while the Cobb County solicitor general said Barr would “fight tirelessly” for Dobbins, according to The Marietta Daily Journal.
In an interview, Barr said just because BRAC won’t happen this year doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be campaigning against the possibility.
“It is a very clear and present danger, and we need to prepare for it and constantly be prepared for it,” he said. “If you wait until the BRAC folks are knocking at your door, it’s almost too late … That’s why I’ve made an issue of it in the campaign, and why it’s one of the major issues I hear about as I travel throughout the district.”