Thad Cochran’s victory in Mississippi proves black voters’ leverage

OPINION - On Election Day voter turnout rose 17% across the state but it wasn't just white voters who went to vote in the Republican primary runoff, black voters also turned out to vote and they would prove to be the difference between victory and defeat...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

“There’s something strange about a Republican primary that’s decided by liberal Democrats.” – State Sen. Chris McDaniel

There was something strange about that primary election between six-term incumbent Republican Senator Thad Cochran and state Senator Chris McDaniel, period!

From reports of a McDaniel supporter sneaking into the bedroom and taking a photo of Mrs. Cochran at the nursing home where she resides to the discovery of more McDaniel supporters locked inside a courthouse where ballots had been counted on primary election night, to some folks actually believing a Democrat (former Rep. Travis Childers) could win the Senate seat this Fall, this race has been no ordinary head scratcher.

Despite the miscues, crazy quotes and unrelenting speculation that the Tea Party is over (or at least gone out for coffee), Chris McDaniel beat Cochran in a primary night stunner. The Tea Party was emboldened, the GOP Establishment was, well, confused as usual and virtually every political pundit in the Capitol City concluded Thad Cochran was politically a Dead Man Walking.

In fact, nearly four weeks ago, the runoff election was going to be a kind of “drop the mike” moment for Tea Party activists in Mississippi and across the country that would rewrite the emerging narrative on recent defeats and put the national GOP leadership on notice (the intervening primary loss by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to College Professor David Brat only made the June 24th runoff look that much more enticing and definitive).

But Thad saw things differently. As early as the day after the June 3rd primary — while his financial supporters and party leaders were trying to decide which exit to take on his campaign highway to nowhere, the Cochran team hunkered down and made a fateful decision: in order to win, Sen. Cochran would need to expand the electorate.

Ok, Im going to state the obvious: elections are about winning (who the heck wants to lose?). But what is not so obvious and is often forgotten is sometimes it matters how you win. And that seems to be whats surprised and ticked off some inside the GOP. Given that Mississippi has what is known as an “open primary” — whereby Democrats and Republicans are allowed to cross over and vote in the others primary — the Cochran campaign needed to calculate the right mix of Democrats and Independents necessary to expand his vote totals in the runoff.

And the secret ingredient to that mix was the black vote.

Pollsters leading up to the final week of campaigning made note of the fact that with each passing day, McDaniels lead over Cochran among Republican voters was growing. As the polling firm Chism Strategies noted, “[u]nless Cochran expands the electorate with general-election Republicans and crossover Democrats, McDaniel wins.”

Suddenly, the primary which became a runoff became a general election for Cochrans U.S. Senate seat. That would change not only the strategy for winning but ultimately impact the presumed outcome. Allies of Senator Cochran launched a statewide get out the vote effort targeting Republicans who did not vote in the primary and of course African-Americans, while allies of McDaniels pursed the smart strategy of building on the upset victory from three weeks before. After all, Mississippi is a conservative state, and people largely vote along racial lines: whites vote Republican and blacks vote Democrat.

On Election Day, voter turnout rose 17% across the state, but it wasn’t just white voters who went to vote in the Republican primary runoff: black voters also turned out to vote, and they would prove to be the difference between victory and defeat. As the Wall Street Journal noted, “[i]n Jefferson County, where blacks are 85 percent of the population, turnout increased by 92 percent.”

If talk radio, blogs and various websites are any indication, there are a few Conservatives who appear to have lost their minds over Cochran’s tactics (McDaniel was so peeved on election night he couldn’t concede the race — still hasn’t). However, what many of these “voices” fail to appreciate is that for all of the hype about Republicans and the black vote, Thad Cochran has been one of the few Republicans who, over the lifetime of his career, has built a relationship with black leaders and voters in his state. True, he has not supported the typical laundry list of programs and legislation more liberal members in the community would want, but he has “secured funds for health centers, historically black colleges and infrastructure, directly and indirectly boosting black communities in the state.”

Bishop Ronnie C. Crudup Sr., of the New Horizon Church International in Jackson, Mississippi, readily acknowledged that Sen. Cochran had been a friend to the black community throughout his six terms in the Senate but also recognized that supporting the senator in a Republican primary was a bit unusual: “[i]n tough times, youve got to do some unusual things. Youve got to be willing to cross the line sometimes and go over to some strange places for our interests.”

What all of this means beyond November — whether Senator Cochran honors the bargain successful politicians make with their constituents, and whether black voters realize a window of opportunity for a broader conversation with the GOP — remains to be seen. I certainly would not make this election out to be some miraculous breakthrough in GOP-African-American relations. After all, old loyalties and attitudes die hard if the continued fallout is any indication.

But, every once and a while, I like to put on my rose-colored glasses and see the world as it should be. In this world, I see black voters having a legitimate seat at both political tables. In this world, I see both political parties recognizing that their viability is inextricably intertwined with the black community and acting accordingly.

There is no doubt the force of circumstances in the Cochran-McDaniel race that gave Senator Cochran the motivation for “courting blacks in their communities, introducing himself and asking for their votes” and gave blacks a reason to consider those circumstances and to decide what was ultimately in their best interest.

After all, there is always something to be gained from having leverage: leverage Cochran did not have on June 3rd; leverage blacks clearly have now in Mississippi.