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Black Voters Saved Thad Cochran and the GOP Establishment. Here's What Republicans Owe Them In Return.

REUTERS/Lee Celano

Chris McDaniel, the arch-conservative state senator who unexpectedly lost his primary runoff election yesterday to unseat Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran, is dead right: The race was decided by non-Republicans. And not just that, but a certain type of non-Republicans taking advantage of the state's open-primary system: African-Americans, or, as McDaniel referred to them in his defiant non-concession speech, “liberal Democrats,” which appears to be the de-racialized code word of choice for some conservative Republicans when talking about black voters.

The evidence is in the maps and numbers. Turnout was up statewide compared with the June 3 primary in which McDaniel narrowly beat Cochran, but fell just shy of the 50 percent share necessary to avoid a runoff. But the spike in turnout tended to be the greatest in the state’s heavily black counties, as this graph by election-data guru Charles Franklin shows. As the New York Times's Nate Cohn notes, the county with the largest share of black voters in the entire country, tiny Jefferson County, saw its turnout jump 91 percent. In larger Hinds County, which Cochran won by fewer than 6,000 votes on June 3, turnout jumped so much that he won it by nearly 11,000 votes yesterday. As the NBC First Read crew put it, “In a race that Cochran won by 6,000 votes, that’s pretty much your ballgame there.”

It is hard to overstate the significance and historical ironies of black Mississippians crossing party lines to rescue a senior member of the state’s Republican establishment. Voting patterns are more divided by race in Mississippi than anywhere else in the country, to a degree that is reminiscent of ethnically-based parties in the developing world. The state’s black voters are as reliably Democratic as anywhere, but there are also more of them than in any other state—more than 37 percent of the population—making their monolithic voting tendencies all the more conspicuous. Meanwhile, white voters in Mississippi have become nearly as monolithically Republican in national elections. (And yes, there is a correlation between the size of southern states’ African-American population and the extent to which their white voters flock to the Republican Party.) In 2008, Barack Obama won a mere 11 percent of white voters in Mississippi; John Kerry did barely better than that four years earlier.

In such a racially divided landscape, it is plain which politician is representing which voters, and Thad Cochran has not gone out of his way to cater to the nearly 40 percent of his state that is African-American. The NAACP gives him an abysmal 4 percent rating on issues of importance to its members. Yet just enough black Mississippians came out for Cochran yesterday to spare him the indignity of ending his career at the hands of an upstart whose supporters broke into a nursing home to take pictures of Cochran’s ailing wife. Beltway pundits are ascribing Cochran’s last-minute success at “expanding the electorate” to the genius of Mississippi power broker Haley Barbour, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and other Cochran supporters who stumbled on the brilliant strategy of touting Cochran’s opposition to Obama in white neighborhoods while touting his support for historically black colleges in African-American neighborhoods. But let’s give credit where it’s due, to the voters themselves. They are not sheep, to be led about by the conniving directives coming from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Rather, some number of them decided that they would rather not be represented in the Senate by someone who is openly nostalgic for the state’s pre-Civil Rights Era past, who, while strolling through a mostly-white county fair flecked with Confederate flags, waxes about how the fair is a “peek back to a better time. I’m a Jeffersonian and a Reaganite, and I like to remember how good things once were.” Yes, in helping Cochran win, these voters greatly reduced the odds of Democrat Travis Childers winning in the fall, but as Southern expert Ed Kilgore notes, such is the defeatism of being a Democrat in the Deep South that those sorts of calculations seem unrealistic to entertain.

With McDaniel now threatening legal action over Cochran’s reliance on those “liberal Democrats,” Cochran’s team is already scrambling to downplay the role of African-American voters, telling reporters that the “expansion of the electorate” came primarily among Republicans who didn’t vote in the June 3 primary. Hogwash—that’s not what the maps and numbers show. There’s no way around it: Cochran was saved by African-American voters, and he and the rest of the GOP establishment terrified of a McDaniel win and the symbolism around it owe black Mississippians a massive debt.

In reaching out to black voters in recent days, Cochran touted his support for the farm bill, for federal education funding, for the food-stamp program. But the GOP establishment’s debt requires a grander statement of gratitude than that. There’s the John Conyers bill calling for a study of slavery reparations—what measure is more suitable than that to be linked to an election in the state that was the headquarters of King Cotton? But if that’s a bridge too far, here are two other possibilities. Mississippi has rejected the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, thus leaving uncovered 300,000 of its residents, most of them African-American—a classic example of the ways in which the state’s large racial minority has suffered at the hands of the state’s monolithically white and Republican power structure. Might Cochran and, more importantly, Haley Barbour call on their allies in Jackson to rethink that rejection of gobs of federal funds just waiting to be deployed in their impoverished state?

Or this: There is a movement afoot in Washington to pass new protections for the voting rights of minorities in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of key elements of the Voting Rights Act. Is there any more fitting way for Thad Cochran to express recognition of the role that African-American voters played in his survival—in the face of threats of voter intimidation from his Republican opponent—than to guarantee that black voters in Mississippi and elsewhere are unencumbered in their access to the polls? I don’t recall Cochran speaking up loudly in opposition when Mississippi passed a stringent voter ID law not long ago. Better late than never, Senator.