Black voters in Miss. might have saved Cochran. What does it mean for the GOP?


JACKSON, MS – JUNE 24: U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) speaks to supporters during his “Victory Party” after holding on to his seat after a narrow victory over Chris McDaniel at the Mississippi Children’s Museum on June 24, 2014 in Jackson, Mississippi. Cochran, a 36-year Senate incumbent, defeated Tea Party-backed Republican candidate Mississippi State Sen. Chris McDaniel in a tight runoff race. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

It might be tempting to suggest that Sen. Thad Cochran’s razor thin victory over State Sen. Chris McDaniel in Tuesday’s runoff election in Mississippi just created a whole bunch of black Republicans in one of the most conservative states in the country.  What the data show is that in Mississippi’s 24 counties with a majority black population, turnout jumped 40 percent from the June 3 primary.  So from there the logic goes that if Cochran expanded the electorate by attracting black voters, who make up 37 percent of the state’s population, then surely the same can happen for Republicans in other states and on the national level.  And that would be good news indeed for a party that has struggled to attract voters who aren’t white.

But actually, there is little good news for Republicans to draw from Mississippi in their continual efforts to attract diverse voters.  In fact, there is probably better news for Democrats more broadly, even as the white and black Democrats who voted for Cochran probably made it that much harder to turn the Mississippi Senate seat blue, given that Cochran will have an easier time against a Democrat than McDaniel would have.

What those Mississippi returns in majority black counties show to some extent is the enduring power of the tea party to offend and to motivate black voters.  Given a chance to vote against the tea party in a Republican primary, the anecdotal evidence suggests that black voters  took it, pushing a six-term Republican senator to a likely seventh term.  What McDaniel had going for him was an fed-up and angry electorate on his side.  What Cochran was able to do was create a fed-up and angry electorate on his side, that was made up of some black voters who presumably don’t usually vote in  Republican primaries. And anger–really any emotion–is a great way to drive people to the polls.

Let’s not forget the power of patronage politics.  Growing up in a small black rural town in South Carolina, I constantly heard two things about Sen. Strom Thurmond.  One, he had a black daughter.  And two, he saved the local post office.  That same familiarity and largesse is what black voters in Mississippi were reminded of in ads in black newspapers and from the pulpits of black churches. In a full page ad in the black weekly “The Mississippi Link” that urged voters to back Cochran, his record of providing $18 billion in federal funds to HBCUs is listed, as is his support for free clinics and funding for the SNAP program.

The straw man argument and stereotype of black voters is that they blindly support Democrats–the party has been called a “plantation,” by some strident GOPers.  But the Mississippi vote showed the strategic calculation that black Democrats made in this election. It was a complicated gambit in a state with complicated racial politics. And more than the establishment GOP, it is the tea party with its Ted Nugent and Duck Dynasty heroes, that for so many embodies the kind of ugly racial politics that shaped the South and that black and white people so badly want to overcome.

What’s clear, is that the results of this election will be studied and chewed over for years to come, in good and bad ways as Democrats and Republicans of all stripes look to the ongoing demographic shifts and what they mean for each party.

Marek Steedman, a political science professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, cautions against over-reading the anecdotal and county-by-county evidence until there is more data about who showed up and why. He says that “there is probably a greater effect for the internal Republican Party than anything else.”

“There is a subset of conservatives associated with the Tea Party for whom this election is going to increase the degree of hostility that they feel to the Democratic Party and there is a racial part of that and that’s a negative,” said Steedman whose research is on race and political theory. “But should it turn out to be the case that a 76-year-old White Republican was able to appeal to Black voters, there is a positive thing coming from that and how the Republican Party thinks about the direction they go in. But if Republican Party politicians want to be able to make that kind of analysis about where they should go they will have to take a hard look at themselves as well as McDaniel.”

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