Drawing the line back from Senator Thad Cochran’s narrow victory in the Republican primary run-off to the contentious politics of the Mississippi Project fifty years earlier is a little easier than you’d think, although it’s doubtful that many of those brave activists would have viewed keeping an ultra-conservative, if courtly, old white Republican in national office as a goal. But movements work in odd and unexpected ways. And things could always be worse.
Sen. Cochran was the most vulnerable of the Republican incumbents targeted by the more vigorous conservative wing of their party (now routinely referred to as “Tea Party”). Truckloads of money from national groups, including FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth, Citizens United (of Supreme Court case fame), and the Senate Conservatives Fund, poured in to support the candidacy of Chris McDaniel, a lawyer who had served two terms in the state senate after a sojourn in conservative talk radio.
McDaniel launched a well-funded insurgent challenge against Cochran based on the Senator’s long service. Cochran, he charged, had been more successful in his 36 years in bringing federal money into the state than in cutting federal spending and taxes. Primaries are low turnout elections, where the truly committed, if organized and mobilized, can beat a larger, less concerned, constituency. And the Tea Party represents, AT MOST, a small but very concerned wedge of the population. (A recent New York Times poll reports 21 percent of Americans claiming support for the Tea Party.)
The key for Sen. Cochran was finding new voters, beyond those regular Republicans who brought him a little less than half of the primary vote. What happened in Mississippi is what never happens between a primary and a run-off election: voter turnout increased by nearly 60,000 votes (an increase of 17 percent) (Thank you, 538.com). Both sides worked hard, and spent aggressively to boost turnout, but the increases were largest in Delta counties with large African American populations.
And here’s where we have to think about Freedom Summer fifty years ago, when organizers for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee brought 1,000 mostly white college students to the state to try to register black voters. (Helpfully, PBS is broadcasting a fine documentary on the subject.)
The immediate outcomes of the effort were violent repression and conflict which spurred national publicity. Would-be voters were humiliated, threatened, and harassed, and three summer organizers were killed. President Lyndon Johnson, running for reelection, worked hard to minimize the visibility of the movement and its impact on the Democratic Party. The following summer, however, President Johnson would quote a movement song in a national speech pressing (successfully) for the Voting Rights Act. Blacks registered to vote in Mississippi, and the documentary reports that the state now has more Black elected officials than any other state.
These successes, however, came at the expense of the Democratic Party more generally. Conservative Whites deserted the Democrats over time, and eventually gave the national Republican Party the electoral lock on the South that Democrats had previously enjoyed (exploited? serviced?). Aided by decennial aggressive redistricting, the Democratic Party in Mississippi is overwhelming Black, and locked into the political minority. Republicans hold ALL state-wide elected offices, and political prognosticators universally saw the Republican primary as tantamount to election for Senator Cochran’s seat.
Seeking support beyond typical Republican primary voters, Sen. Cochran worked to mobilize Black voters, mostly Democrats who realized that a Democrat would not win the general election in November. The McDaniel challenge made those voters valuable to Cochran in a way they had never before been.
The mobilization strategy was clear since the primary election weeks ago, and Tea Party groups worked to monitor the polls, taking notes, and perhaps dissuading some would-be voters. It used to be that such efforts were directed at keeping Blacks from the polls. Yesterday, it was about keeping voters who might support a Democrat in November from showing up at the polls. But you could identify those people by their color.
McDaniel has refused to concede to Cochran, suggesting that he will challenge the vote in court, noting the participation of Democrats in the primary. The conflict about access to the polls in elections that actually matter continues, fifty years after the Summer Project.