Chris McDaniel might still be wandering about Mississippi in his bus, looking for mislaid votes, but Sen. Thad Cochran and his Democratic opponent already have moved on to the more advanced stage of searching for votes in the state -- in the general election. And that means they're preparing their speeches for the Neshoba Couty Fair.
It's something Cochran has done many times before, as he bragged in a tweet last year.
An editorial in the Neshoba Democrat Wednesday morning noted that, "Fairgoers know it is nearly impossible to accurately describe, even in a sentence or two, without leaving out something important." However, the people in this local news broadcast do a pretty good job of summing up "Mississippi's Giant House Party."
Although many Mississippians love the fair for the food and the memories, nationally the fair is remembered mostly for its contributions to political history. And even when you narrow the fair's scope to that, there's a lot of ground to cover.
The Neshoba County Fair, which has been happening since 1889, with a brief hiatus for World War II, is a week-long party, and most of the people attending stay all week in cabins that have been in their families for ages. Most of the attendees are white, and most of them are liable to cheer for the conservative politicians who have given speeches at the fair for decades.
The most famous person to speak at the Neshoba County Fair was Ronald Reagan, who tried to win over Mississippi Democrats during his 1980 presidential run. The most remembered lines of his speech sound familiar, as they've been part of Republican Party platform's bedrock for decades. "I believe in state's rights; I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level," Reagan said. "And I believe that we've distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the Constitution to that federal establishment."
Many people saw these sentences as implying far more than simply a wish to scale back the federal government, given the history of "states' rights" speeches at the fair from prominent segregationists. New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis wrote of the speech:
"I believe in states' rights,' Reagan told the predominantly white audience at the fair. Those were indeed code words -- the ones used by Southern white politicians in the old days to rouse audiences against racial integration and the Supreme Court. Now there are two ways of looking at Reagan's decision to go to Philadelphia, Miss., and speak about states' rights. He may have done it to court the votes of whites not yet reconciled to the changes in the Southern way of life. Or he may have done it in ignorance of the symbol. Neither interpretation can commend Reagan to anyone who cares about civil rights.
Neshoba County is not only host to the fair, which has been there for over a century. In 1964, three civil rights activists -- one white, two black -- who were registering black voters in Mississippi disappeared there. They were found 44 days later, buried near where they were shot by Klansmen. When it came time for the 25th anniversary of the murders, Cochran and Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) opted not to co-sponsor a resolution naming June 21, 1989, "Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner Day," in honor of the deceased men.
Reagan's speech nationalized the tensions that had been present at the Neshoba County Fair for decades.
Since 1988, the fair has retreated inward, with Mississippi voters relishing the fact that they get to hear candidates in a marathon session of speechifying. Most political candidates in Mississippi still make an appearance, although most of the Democrats know it's not quite their crowd.
National politicians have mostly abandoned the fair. Michael Dukakis was the last Democratic presidential candidate to speak there. In fact, he was the last presidential candidate altogether to give a speech at the fair. In 1980, when Reagan came to Neshoba County, Mississippi political columnist Sid Salter tells The Fix, "we were four years from Mississippi supporting Jimmy Carter. The state was still a competitive environment -- or at least had the appearance of being so."
After that point, Mississippi morphed from being a safe place for Southern Democrats to a sure vote for Republicans. Salter says Dukakis's decision to give a speech was a "bold move" -- one that future presidential hopefuls didn't think was worth making. Republicans on the national stage haven't bothered coming to Neshoba either; they know the small state will vote for them anyway. On top of that, social media has made it far easier to disseminate information to a wide swath of the public without relying on far-flung appearances, Salter says. "It makes coming here less of a novelty."
Presidential candidates are still mentioned in speeches. In 2004, Lott called Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, "a French-speaking socialist from Boston, Massachusetts, who's more liberal than Ted Kennedy." Given President Obama's low approval ratings and the proximity of the 2014 election, he is surely going to be mentioned frequently this year.
However, the fair has become less of an electoral arbiter for state politicians. The fair used to take place before the primaries, allowing dueling Republican candidates a forum to suss out their differences. This year, when Cochran and Childers take turns giving stump speeches, there won't be much of a question of who is going to win. (It is Mississippi.)
When national outlets do profile the fair, which they do less and less often, it is usually to document the lingering racial tension in the state. However, in the past decade or so, more and more black Mississippians have visited the fair -- and have even had the opportunity to support black candidates. In 2003, the Associated Press spoke to Maggie Hunter, a African-American cook working at the fair. She was supporting Barbara Blackmon, a black candidate for lieutenant governor. After Blackmon's speech, Hunter said, "I was amazed. Black folks have been behind. We need somebody." Emily Wagster Pettus, the reporter who wrote that story, tells the Fix that the visiting crowd -- those who don't spend the entire week at the fair in a cabin -- has grown more and more diverse in the years since.
Salter's cabin is on the square, near the pavilion where the political speeches take place. At night, cover bands play, bringing out teenagers and college students to dance in a crush of people, "elbow to elbow." "The crowd is far more diverse than most people would assume," he says. "I remember the bad old days, and I am encouraged by the young people I see. Is there still a lot of work to be done here? Sure. Is there still a lot more work to be done in the state and the South? Yeah. But I am encouraged by what I've seen." Salter says the fair is also drawing far more Hispanic attendees.
In 2005, the only statewide Democratic elected official left in Mississippi today, Attorney General Jim Hood, spoke of those three dead civil rights activists. Weeks earlier, he was involved in a case that convicted one of the murderers, 40 years later. "Aren't you proud of Neshoba Countians for what they've done to right a past wrong?" Hood said at the time. "Aren't you proud to tell the world that you're from the state of Mississippi, that we will do the right thing in Mississippi?" Hood is in his third term, and plans to run again next year.
In an interesting twist, Cochran's ability to give a speech Thursday morning as a GOP nominee is thanks in very large part to the fact that black voters in the state were mobilized to turn out in his primary runoff with McDaniel.
There's another fault line in Mississippi politics that is far more likely to make an appearance in the crowd this morning, between Cochran's establishment supporters and McDaniel's tea party followers. The Neshoba Democrat reported that the Mississippi Tea Party is making plans to muck up the "giant harmonious love-fest by all state Republican leaders and Thad." How do they plan to do this? A statement from the group says it plans to bring along signs that say "Cochran + (Haley) Barbour = VOTER FRAUD", "Vote Buying is Illegal," etc.
Salter says that he expects "there will be some people in the crowd that will represent these viewpoints."
In other words, there will be plenty of people at the Neshoba County Fair, excitedly eating up speeches. But don't expect it to influence November's results. The state's political makeup -- and the timing of the fair -- have made that an order a tad too tall.