By Tom Baxter
We have come to a place in American politics where, when a six-term U.S. senator from Mississippi wins his primary, it can be called “stunning,” with at least a small amount of justification.
Fifty years after Fannie Lou Hamer and other members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party fought to be counted at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, black votes spoke loudly Tuesday in Mississippi, although not as Ms. Hamer might have imagined they would speak. They were crucial to U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran’s runoff victory over tea party challenger Chris McDaniel in Tuesday’s Republican primary runoff.
The prospect of a McDaniel victory had Republicans around the country wringing their hands before Tuesday’s runoff vote. Cochran trailed the state senator and conservative radio host by more than a thousand votes in the June 3 primary, and often looked tired and out of it on the stump (see below).
But Cochran’s campaign — which is another way of saying the entire Mississippi Republican establishment — made the correct strategic decision to focus its resources on voter turnout and court black voters.
Sunflower County, where Ms. Hamer lived, is today 73 percent African American. Cochran won 74 percent of the vote, there, in line with his showing in other majority-black counties. Cochran increased his majority in Hinds County (Jackson) from about 5,000 votes to about 11,000. Cochran won the runoff by less than 7,000 votes statewide.
McDaniel has refused to concede, blaming “liberal Democrats” for his loss. His conservative supporters are outraged over Cochran’s baldfaced tactics, and predictably, there’s already talk in other states about tightening Republican primary requirements.
But more than one election has been won in this fashion. Outflanked from his right in the first primary vote, Cochran embraced his record as an appropriator and made this a referendum on the tea party’s austerity platform.
It’s been a long time since a U.S. Senate race in Mississippi, much less a primary runoff, attracted much attention outside that state. But this week Mississippi is at the center of the national political stage.
The runoff between U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran and challenger Chris McDaniel has been billed as the next big test of tea party clout after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s loss to challenger David Brat in his Virginia district two weeks ago.
In fact, the Mississippi race could be a more meaningful bellwether for politics in the South. It’s a statewide race, it’s far more of a test of the Republican establishment in the region, and it has brought into sharp focus an old contradiction: the states most dependent on government help are very often where voters are most eager to end it.
In the late stages of this race, trailing McDaniel by 8 points in one poll, the 76-year-old Cochran has veered away from the standard conservative mantra he voiced earlier in the campaign. He’s been courting black voters and openly reminding voters of the federal dollars he’s brought home, much as Southern Democrats used to do.
Cochran isn’t the first Republican in Mississippi to call attention to his ability to bring home the bacon. Former Gov. Haley Barbour was elected as a fiscal conservative, but after Hurricane Katrina he made effective use of his Washington connections to speed the flow of relief money and let voters know about it in his reelection campaign.
In this race, however, federal dollars and conservative doctrine have become an either/or proposition. McDaniel, a lawyer, state senator and conservative radio host, has said recently that he would have had trouble voting for the federal Katrina relief bill. He’s for fiscal austerity, you might say, come hell or high water.
In a recent ad, Cochran talks about the importance of aerospace, shipbuilding and research dollars, without mentioning that 26 percent of the state receives Medicaid and 22 percent, food stamps. The point is implicitly clear, in any case.
To the maximum extent possible, Cochran wants to make the primary runoff look more like the general election population. Democrats, on the other hand, see a general election possibility for their candidate, Travis Childers, if McDaniel knocks off Cochran.
Some of the national notice has been due to antics like the blogger, later disavowed by the McDaniel campaign, who talked himself into a nursing home and videotaped Cochran’s wife, and the three tea party members who got locked inside the Hinds County court house on the night of the primary, in which McDaniel led Cochran by a little over 1,400 votes.
More recently, Cochran was his own worst enemy, recalling to a friendly crowd how he and his pals did “all kinds of indecent things with animals” when he was a child on the farm. This prompted a radio ad from a pro-McDaniel PAC with the sound of a bleating sheep and an announcer exhorting voters to “Tell Thad Cochran you’re no farm animal, and you’re not going to be on the receiving end of this so-called fun any longer.”
If you think this sort of negativity is going to seriously affect turnout, you might be wrong. This is Mississippi, a state accustomed to mudslinging and pre-election scandal.
While his comment about “indecent things” was no doubt taken the wrong way by some, it does illustrate what may be Cochran’s biggest problem: He’s old, and at times has seemed out of touch to voters. The question is whether the voters in Mississippi are willing to replace him with a younger conservative with a far more severe attitude toward the federal dollars they’ve grown accustomed to.