By Alan Bean
Thad Cochran wasn’t supposed to win this one. Had he played by the normal rules of Mississippi politics he would be working on his golf game. But the senior Senator from the Magnolia State broke the rules.
The calculus leading up to this unlikely electoral victory is complicated. Moderate Republicans, desperate to deprive Tea Party insurgents of a big symbolic win, poured millions of dollars into this primary contest. Chamber of Commerce people backed Cochran to the hilt because, unlike the volatile Chris McDaniel, he was a known quantity.
But there is one simple explanation for a traditional conservative walking away with a narrow victory–he got out the black vote.
Mississippi has open primary elections. That means that if you didn’t vote for a Democrat in the initial primary contest, you can vote in the Republican runoff election. And that’s precisely what tens of thousands of black Mississippians did. According to a Washington Post analyst Philip Bump,
Runoff turnout in the 24 counties with a black population of 50 percent or more was up almost 40 percent from the primary. In all other counties, turnout was up just 16 percent.
“That is an absolutely stunning stat,” The Post’s Chris Cillizza says, “and tells much of the story of the runoff. Cochran’s ability to convince a strongly Democratic constituency to be for him — despite the fact that every Democratic consultant believed McDaniel gave the party a better chance to win the seat in the fall — is simply remarkable.”
Without these crossover voters, Cochran would have gone down to the kind of stunning defeat that most people (myself included) were predicting. Black voters were betting that, although McDaniel would have been more vulnerable to a Democratic challenger in the fall, it was highly unlikely that Mississippi was going to elect a blue senator under any circumstances. In that case, it was best to go with the devil you know.
It is highly significant that Thad Cochran went out of his way to court black Democrats, adopting a distinctly moderate tone in the final weeks of the election. That has McDaniel and his supporters hopping mad. It has been a long time since a white Republican candidate courted the black electorate in the great state of Mississippi. From their perspective (though they can’t say it out loud) Cochran is a race traitor.
The fact that the election results coincided with the American Experience program on Freedom Summer underscored the irony of this development.
Are we witnessing the emergence of a new political coalition comprised of pragmatic black Democrats and moderate Republicans? Probably not. But whenever a traditional conservative faces off against a Tea Party politician like McDaniel, strange political bed fellows will crawl under the sheets once again.