Tea Party insurgent Chris McDaniel came tantalizingly close to knocking off Senator Thad Cochran in Mississippi’s Republican primary runoff last week, but a surge in black voter turnout saved the six-term incumbent’s bacon. Cochran’s election to a seventh term in November now seems a foregone conclusion, and boy, are a lot of conservatives mad. “There is something a bit unusual about a Republican primary that’s decided by liberal Democrats,” McDaniel fumed on election night, slamming Cochran and the GOP establishment for “once again reaching across the aisle [and] abandoning the conservative movement.” But whatever else the election outcome meant, Cochran’s “reaching across the aisle” made his victory a noteworthy instance of something that supposedly doesn’t and can’t happen in Mississippi even today: A white GOP politician sought support among Democrats, and particularly black Democrats. And far from being politically powerless, they tipped the election.
Under Mississippi’s open-primary rules, anyone who hadn’t already voted in the Democratic primary could vote in the Republican runoff. The Cochran camp openly solicited crossover support, as John Hayward wrote in Human Events, “through a combination of race-baiting attacks on McDaniel, and touting his [Cochran’s] ability to make government larger and bring home more goodies from Washington.” National Review called it a “Two-Faced Victory”: In majority-black neighborhoods, Cochran’s ads and mailers played up his support for historically black colleges and food stamps. In predominantly white districts, other pamphlets highlighted his support for the National Rifle Association and his opposition to abortion and Obamacare.
What especially outraged many conservatives was a flyer circulated in largely black precincts bearing the ominous heading “The Tea Party intends to prevent blacks from voting on Tuesday.” It urged voters to re-elect Cochran in order to prevent a “return to the bygone era of intimidating black Mississippians from voting.” No one is surprised when Democrats play the race card that way, Rush Limbaugh told his radio audience, but for the Republican establishment to do so was “really reprehensible.”