Race and Republicans in Mississippi’s Senate Primary

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In yesterday’s primary election in Mississippi, incumbent Thad Cochran appealed to black voters in his race against Chris McDaniel. This is from a New York Times companion piece to their main reporting on the election:

The former mayor [of Belzoni, an early focal point of the civil rights movement] was not surprised by African-Americans’ enthusiasm for Mr. Cochran. The returns showed that Humphreys County, a predominantly African-American area, went for the senator, 811 to 214. “Cochran has been very responsive to the community, to the constituency and the state regardless of race,” he said.

….Race relations have improved over the last 45 years, and African-Americans made a coordinated effort to keep Mr. Cochran in office out of concern that his challenger, Chris McDaniel, a Tea Party favorite, would be less inclusive.

McDaniel is crying foul because he thinks Cochran won with the help of liberal Democratic voters—as he’s allowed to do in Mississippi’s open primary system. Ed Kilgore is unimpressed:

The kvetching from the Right last night sounded an awful lot like southern seggies during the civil rights era complaning about “The Bloc Vote”….For all the talk last night of “liberal Democrats” being allowed to determine a Republican primary, there’s actually no way to know the partisan or ideological identity of voters in a state with no party registration (as David Nir pointedly asked this morning, why hasn’t Chris McDaniel sponsored a bill to change that in his years in the state legislature?). So what these birds are really complaining about is black participation in a “white primary.” This is certainly not an argument consistent with broadening the appeal of the GOP or the conservative movement.

I don’t doubt for a second that race played a role here, but I think this is a mite unfair. In 2012, Mississippi blacks voted for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by 96-4 percent. In 2008, they voted for Democrat Ronnie Musgrove over Republican Roger Wicker 92-8 percent and for Democrat Erik Fleming over Thad Cochran 94-6 percent. (Mississippi had two senate races that year.)

Cochran did nothing wrong in yesterday’s election, and if blacks showed up to support him because they disliked McDaniel’s racially-charged past, that’s democracy for you. Still, I think it’s pretty clear that most of these voters really were Democrats. Race may be an underlying motivation for the complaints from McDaniel’s supporters, but conservative dislike of Democrats voting in a Republican primary is also a motivation. (And, in my view, a legitimate one. I’m not a fan of open primaries.)

That said, if tea party types want to avoid accusations of racism, they should steer clear of things like loudly announcing an Election Day program to send teams of “poll watchers” to majority black precincts. Especially in a state with a history like Mississippi’s, it’s pretty hard to interpret that as anything other than a deliberate racial provocation.

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