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Mississippi blacks show greater sophistication at the ballot box

Melvin B. Miller | 7/3/2014, 6 a.m.

The significance of U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran’s primary runoff victory extends beyond the Mississippi Delta. The strategies of Democrats, Republicans, Tea Party members and African American politicians have been affected by the result. In the process, black voters in Mississippi demonstrated a higher degree of sophistication.

After the defeat of Rep. Eric Cantor in Virginia, the Tea Party gained strength by being able to vanquish the House Majority Leader. The ability to add to their trophy case Thad Cochran, a six-term Mississippi U.S. senator, would have greatly enhanced the Tea Party’s political status.

In a June 3 primary race, Cochran lost by 1,386 votes to Chris McDaniel, a state senator and Tea Party candidate. Fortunately, McDaniel had accrued only 49.5 percent of the vote in a three candidate race. Something greater than 50 percent was necessary to win outright. A runoff election was scheduled for June 24.

This time Cochran won by 6,373 votes out of 374,893 cast —190,633 to 184,260 — a 51 percent to 49 percent victory. Everyone conceded that the black vote for Cochran was the margin of victory. In fact, Rush Limbaugh, the ultra-conservative talk show host, called black voters for Cochran “Uncle Toms” for voting for a Republican senator.

Black citizens of Mississippi are accustomed to their U.S. senators being Republicans. Usually, they vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic candidate who is customarily white. In his 2008 re-election race Thad Cochran won 61.44 percent of the vote against Erick Fleming, a black opponent who lost with 38.56 percent of the votes. However, astute blacks believed that McDaniel was so opposed to their political interests that he had to be stopped even if it meant voting Republican.

Mississippi has open primaries. There are no restrictions based on party affiliation. However, you cannot vote in the Democratic primary and also vote in the Republican runoff. According to sources in Mississippi, some black Democrats voted for Cochran in the primary. Without those votes for Cochran, McDaniel might have tallied 50 percent of the vote at that time and been nominated. Other blacks who did not vote in the Democratic primary election were able to vote for Cochran in the runoff.

The vote in the runoff election was 55,991 higher than in the primary. For example, the vote in Hinds County, the site of the state capitol in Jackson, climbed from 17,406 on June 3 to 24,889 in the runoff. Cochran’s vote increased from 11,479 to 17,927, 72 percent of the total. Much of the vote was attributed to the African American turnout.

While Cochran is a conservative, he supports federal subsidies for education and government spending that brings jobs and federal programs to Mississippi. As an ultra-conservative, McDaniel staunchly opposes big government spending for education and programs like food stamps that benefit the people. He was also viewed as supporting organizations to establish the policies of the days of the Confederacy.

Some Democrats wanted McDaniel to win because his views are so extreme that they believed Travis Childers, the Democratic nominee, would be able to beat him in the November election. The model for this is the 2012 race in Indiana in which Republican Sen. Richard Lugar was defeated by Richard Murdock in the primary. The Democrat Joe Donnelly was then able to win the race against an opponent who was too radical.

Democratic political strategists and Tea Party members are disappointed by the outcome, but politically sophisticated blacks in Mississippi believe McDaniel in the U.S. Senate would be dangerously counterproductive. Blacks demonstrated their political power as a minority and they can build upon that achievement.