For the past month, Mississippi‘s black Democrats have been in the unusual position of sitting in the electoral equivalent of that state’s catbird seat.
After six-term U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran failed to break the 50 percent threshold in a Republican primary earlier this month, the 76-year-old incumbent faced a runoff against state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a much younger Tea Party-backed candidate feared and loathed by the GOP establishment.
Because Mississippi is an open primary state, voters from one party can cross over and vote in the other party‘s runoff election, as long as they didn’t vote in their registered party‘s primary weeks earlier. As it turns out, lots of black Democrats stayed home on June 3 because, historically, any eventual Democratic nominee has been slaughtered by the Republican in November.
For 36 years, the butcher conducting the ritual slaughter of Democrats has been Thad Cochran, a man so conservative that he once voted against a symbolic apology to the nation about Congress‘ failure to pass anti-lynching legislation. Like most politicians in Mississippi‘s overwhelmingly white Republican caucus, Mr. Cochran never had a reason to reach out to black voters. Consequently, It’s always been hard to tell the difference between benign contempt and benign neglect in Mississippi, the reddest of the South‘s reliably red states.
Conventional wisdom quickly anointed Mr. McDaniel, a talk show host in the Rush Limbaugh mode, as the likely winner of the runoff. Mr. Cochran trailed his primary opponent in every poll of registered Republicans. Momentum seemed to be with Mr. Cochran’s opponent ever since former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia lost his seat in a primary to another Tea Party insurgent on June 10. Money poured in for Mr. McDaniel from across the country as Tea Party stalwarts like Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin campaigned for him against the GOP establishment.
Nothing focuses the mind of an incumbent political hack like the prospect of a humiliating defeat. Mr. Cochran understood that running a conventional race would get him killed when his opponent is younger and more media savvy, so the incumbent did something white Mississippi Republicans aren‘t used to doing -- he knocked on the doors of black voters who failed to vote in the June 3 Democratic primary. Mr. Cochran took off his hat and pleaded for their support.
Mr. Cochran’s opportunistic pleas for black votes must have verged on the surreal for those Mississippians old enough to remember the fate of civil rights workers Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner as they tried to register blacks to vote in what was arguably the most racist state in the Union.
Thad Cochran didn‘t let the irony of begging for black votes on the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer overwhelm him. He was more than happy to stir up memories of the bad old days if it helped him keep his U.S. Senate seat.
Mr. Cochran reminded black voters that as a state senator, Mr. McDaniel voted against Mississippi’s Civil Rights Museum, and that he allegedly made racist comments on his radio program. Since his record on race issues was scarcely better than his opponent‘s, Mr. Cochran highlighted his seniority in the U.S. Senate and his long history of bringing federal pork back to his impoverished state.
A potential voter looking through the screen door at Mr. Cochran on the front porch could immediately see the advantage of having a contrite Mississippi senator indebted to black voters for once. After all, Mr. Cochran was the scoundrel they knew, while Mr. McDaniel, a man known mainly for palling around with members of Sons of Confederate Veterans, was the scoundrel they least wanted representing their interests in the U.S. Senate.
In Tuesday’s Republican runoff, upwards of 35,000 blacks who typically vote Democratic turned up at the polls to provide Thad Cochran with the margin of victory he needed to beat back a challenger who had all but measured the drapes in his new office. For the second time in a month, pundits were stunned by an election’s outcome.
Who would‘ve thunk that black Mississippians still haunted by the memory of Freedom Summer would be capable of something as radical as voting their interests?
Tony Norman: email@example.com or 412-263-1631; Twitter @TonyNormanPG