Do not for a minute think that Tuesday’s Senate runoff in Mississippi is about Thad Cochran.
Mr. Cochran, an innocuous man who sits at the desk once occupied by Jefferson Davis, has been on Capitol Hill for 41 years, and the most remarkable thing about him is that a Mississippi Republican has been in the Senate for six terms. A half-century ago, Republicans were rarely sighted in Mississippi and the state was convulsed in bitter racial turmoil that was a searing embarrassment to a nation that blithely used the idiom of “freedom” to fight communism outside its borders.
This week voters in Mississippi will decide whether to return Mr. Cochran to the Senate — if he wins the Republican nomination he’s a good bet in the general election in November — or to make him another incumbent toppled, as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of suburban Richmond was earlier this month, by a Tea Party insurgency.
The supporters of state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who earned a runoff with Mr. Cochran after neither man won a majority in the primary, are trying to make an issue of what the longtime senator represents: longevity, the status quo, insider maneuvers, the art of the deal, politics as usual, pork-barrel favors, mushy conservatism. Those are legitimate issues, but our topic this morning is not what Mr. Cochran represents but the phenomenon of Mr. Cochran representing Mississippi in the first place.
Back in the days when Barry Goldwater was the leading conservative — he actually was known as Mr. Conservative — Mississippi was a one-party state, like the Soviet Union, only different. There were a handful of Republicans, but so few you almost knew all their names, principally Wirt Adams Yerger Jr., who founded the Magnolia State’s GOP affiliate at the late date of 1956, and Clarke Reed, the highest-profile Mississippi Republican operative of his time who, along with only 112,965 other lonely Mississippi souls, voted for Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. The man who was perhaps the greatest war hero in American history won less than 40 percent of the vote in a military-oriented state only seven years after V-E Day.
A half-century ago James O. Eastland and John C. Stennis, regarded as populist folk heroes but in fact ardent early opponents of integration, occupied the state’s two Senate seats. Both were Democrats of the old school, and eventually both were committee chairmen, too. (Their two successors, each a Republican, were both Ole Miss cheerleaders, a peculiar but persistent launching pad for power in the state.)
All five members of the House in those days were Democrats, though one lost to a Republican in 1964. The governor, Paul B. Johnson Jr., was a Democrat who had run for office with a stump speech that invariably included the applause line that the NAACP stood for “niggers, alligators, apes, coons and possums.” He won with 62 percent of the vote.
“That the representation of the South is largely reactionary is something we all know,” John Gunther wrote in “Inside U.S.A.,” his classic 1947 survey of the country, “but it is not so commonly known that quite aside from its reactionary quality this representation is also very powerful — so much so that it may fairly be said that the southern block of Tory Democrats is the chief single factor in the United States militating against the progress of the nation as a whole.”
For generations, Mississippi, famous for low wages and low literacy rates, put up a united front to the rest of the country. Yet inside the state there were important differences — between the races, to be sure, but also differences that were geographic (bayous and highlands, forests and flatlands), regional (the plantations of the Mississippi Delta and the stately halls of Ole Miss), gastronomical (the tamales of Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville, the shrimp and chicken gumbo of the Taylor Grocery restaurant, the unforgettable three-piece platter of Coca-Cola-brined fried chicken offered for breakfast at the BBB in Oxford) and occupational (farms and fisheries, energy and electronics plants, and auto-parts manufacturers).
Now there are other differences, and they get to the heart of what Tuesday’s contest is all about.
A generation ago, the split was between those holding firm to the Democratic creed (a diminishing group) and those moving to a Republican Party with a candidate (Goldwater, 1964) whose principal appeal was that he wasn’t Lyndon Johnson, the Texas apostate who embraced civil rights; with a president (Richard Nixon, 1969) who ran on an explicit Southern Strategy; and with a nominee (Ronald Reagan, 1980) who used the freighted phrase “states’ rights” campaigning in Neshoba County.
Now the split is materially different, and exists in several dimensions.
One is the division between the Republican old guard in the state — the very phrase would have seemed ludicrous 50 years ago — and the new, muscular conservatives aligned with the Tea Party movement. Another is the division between newcomers and oldtimers, as Mississippi, like other Southern states, becomes transformed by outsiders who don’t comprehend that the Republican officeholders there once were rebels themselves — against a political establishment that itself once seemed impregnable.
Thus, what demographers call “generational replacement” is perhaps the most potent cultural and political force in modern Mississippi — and it is perhaps more potent there than anywhere else in the nation.
The result is political instability in a state whose entire modern history has been about the struggle for stability.
The key to understanding the Mississippi showdown is recognizing that the movement from Democratic Mississippi to Republican Mississippi wasn’t really a revolution after all. It was a movement to preserve the status quo. The new Republicans offered a worldview in important ways congruent with that of the old Democrats — but completely divergent from that offered by the new Democrats, who included tens of thousands of blacks, the largest percentage of any state’s population, eligible to cast ballots because of LBJ’s Voting Rights Act.
This month’s new challenge to the political establishment is less dramatic but more important than the transition from Democratic control to Republican. Mr. McDaniel is far more different from the Republican he seeks to supplant than Mr. Cochran was from the Democrat he replaced in 1978, Chairman Eastland.
So Tuesday’s primary isn’t about Thad Cochran. It’s about Mississippi and the GOP and change — and about the change going on in the Mississippi Republican Party. At the moment, it’s the most interesting political race in the most interesting region of the most interesting political democracy.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1890).