Mississippi's Black Voters Should Vote for Thad Cochran

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Reporting on Politics and Policy.
June 20 2014 1:25 PM

Mississippi's Black Voters Should Vote for Thad Cochran

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Help him win.

Photo by Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty Images

If the status quo holds, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran will lose his seat to Chris McDaniel, the upstart Tea Party Republican who pushed the longtime senator into a run-off election. And so, rather than persuade McDaniel's supporters, Team Cochran is trying to change the status quo by appealing to a new class of voters: African Americans. Here's the New York Times with more:

It is a remarkable political science experiment, and it also may be the only path to victory left to Mr. Cochran. But after being narrowly edged out by Mr. McDaniel, 41, in the Republican primary earlier this month, Mr. Cochran, 76, needs to expand the number of voters who will show up for the runoff, which is open to any Mississippi resident who did not vote in the Democratic primary. The winner on Tuesday will face former Representative Travis Childers, a conservative Democrat, in November.
“We’ve got efforts reaching out to black voters in Mississippi who want to vote for Thad because they like what Thad is for,” said Austin Barbour, a Cochran campaign adviser. “Thad Cochran is someone who, even with his conservative message, represents all of Mississippi. He’s not some hostile screamer.”
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Because there's no party registration in Mississippi, anyone can vote in the Republican primary, as long as they didn't vote in the Democratic one. And, as Philip Bump notes for the Washington Post, turnout for the Democratic primary was substantially lower than that of the Republican one. Which means there's an ample population of black voters who could give Cochran the edge he needs to win.

The big question, if you're a Mississippi black voter, is whether to play the game. Given Cochran's record, it's tempting to say no. The Mississippi senator isn't a moderate, and it's hard to say he's been a friend to black Americans in the state. He voted for welfare reform and tough drug sentencing laws in the 1990s, against child health care expansion and a minimum wage increase in the 2000s, and—in the last five years—against the stimulus and the Affordable Care Act.

At the same time, Cochran isn't an ideologue, and—during his six terms—has funneled tens of billions in earmarks and funds to Mississippi, propping the state's economy and creating jobs for thousands of his constituents. As the Times notes, Cochran has secured funds for "health centers, historically black colleges and infrastructure," directly and indirectly boosting black communities in the state.

McDaniel, on the other hand, is opposed to federal spending as a matter of course, and would sacrifice these investments for the sake of ideological purity. Given the extent to which a Republican senator is guaranteed—Mississippi is the site of extreme racial polarization, where almost all whites vote Republican and all blacks vote Democratic—Cochran might stand as the best available choice for black voters in the state.

Indeed, if there was a time to support Cochran, now is it. A Thad Cochran who owes his next—and probably final—term to black support is a Thad Cochran who might work to secure their interests in the Senate. It's possible that Cochran could win with black voters and ignore them afterwards. But I doubt it. Politicians tend to respond to key constituencies, and black voters will be in a good spot if they can extract concessions from Cochran in return for their support, and he goes on to win. It's nakedly transactional, yes, but it's much better than trying to deal with an ideologue who draws his support from the most anti-government voters in the state.

Which is a long way of saying that, if I were voting in Mississippi, I'd swallow my partisanship and cast a ballot for Thad Cochran. He's not a great choice, but given the circumstances, he's probably the best one.

Jamelle Bouie is a Slate staff writer covering politics, policy, and race.

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