Mississippi Senate runoff: Can black voters save Thad Cochran?

Sen. Thad Cochran is facing a tight runoff Tuesday in the Republican primary with the tea party-backed Chris McDaniel. Looking for an edge, he's appealing to African-American voters. It's a tactic that has raised eyebrows.

Kelly Price/Hattiesburg American/AP
Sen. Thad Cochran (R) of Mississippi talks with employees at the Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg, Miss., earlier this month. Cochran will face Chris McDaniel in a primary runoff Tuesday.

Gary Fredericks calls himself a proud black Mississippi Democrat, but on Tuesday, he will vote Republican.

His choice: Thad Cochran, the six-term senator who is fighting for his political life in a primary runoff against tea party state Sen. Chris McDaniel.

“I look at what’s best for Mississippi,” said Mr. Fredericks, holding a Thad Cochran sign at a rally Sunday for the senator at the Gulfport-Biloxi airport. “Senator Cochran delivers for our state, and the tea party wants that to end.”

If Cochran forces get their way, there will be many like Fredericks voting Tuesday – Democrats, many of them African-American, who didn’t vote in the Democratic primary three weeks ago, and are therefore eligible to vote in the GOP runoff. Both the Cochran campaign and outside groups supporting him have conducted outreach into the black community – including through black churches – that has raised eyebrows.

It is a poignant moment for Mississippi, with its history of segregation and racial strife. Thirty-seven percent of the state’s population is black, the highest percentage of any state, and most are Democrats.  And they represent potentially fertile territory for Cochran, who came in second to McDaniel by just half a percentage point on June 3. Neither man won a majority, because of a third candidate. Thus, the runoff between Senator Cochran and state Senator McDaniel.

To save his job, Cochran needs to expand his electorate. Ads for Cochran have run in black newspapers and radio stations. TV ads produced by the Cochran campaign portray him interacting with African-Americans. But the biggest pro-Cochran super political action committee, Mississippi Conservatives, has focused on “get out the vote.”

“In this runoff, our super PAC has focused on organization, ground game, and phone banks to make sure we’re reaching out on a peer-to-peer basis to all Mississippians,” says Henry Barbour, co-founder of the group. “We’re reaching out to white people, black people, Choctaws. We don’t believe the way you look should decide whether we ask for your vote or not.”

That includes outreach to black ministers, who in turn encourage their parishioners to vote for Cochran. Pete Perry, a Republican strategist working for Mississippi Conservatives, told The New York Times recently that he’s helping the group with African-American outreach, including ministers, and spending in the “five-figure range” to do so.

Often called “walking around money,” such spending goes for transportation, gas money, and paying people to walk precincts and advocate for a candidate. Mr. Barbour is unapologetic.

“When my FEC [Federal Election Commission] report comes out it will be plain, we‘ve invested in a lot of folks, black and white, to work in their communities on behalf of Thad Cochran,” says Barbour.   

The McDaniel campaign decries the effort as pandering – but portrays it as outreach to Democrats, not blacks. McDaniel, a former talk radio host, is walking on egg shells when it comes to race. Earlier in the campaign, an old recording of McDaniel’s show resurfaced, including a provocative comment on reparations for the descendants of slaves.

The tea party, too, has been tarred by the racial comments of some members. Though tea party leaders are always quick to highlight their black members. A belief in fiscal and personal responsibility knows no racial boundaries, they say.

Democratic pollster Brad Chism, who is based in Jackson, Miss., writes that Cochran surrogates are “groveling for Democrat and union votes,” and wonders if his “pivot to a more centrist message” will erode his conservative base.

The Cochran campaign denies he’s going “centrist” to appeal to Democrats, and portrays Cochran’s expanded outreach as an effort to grow the party.

“I’m old enough to remember the way things used to be – I’m from Mississippi. More people voting is a good thing,” says Stuart Stevens, a Cochran adviser and a top adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012.

Despite Mississippi’s racially polarized voting habits, Cochran has a long history of garnering some black support.

In 1978, when Cochran was first elected to the Senate, he went to see Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina, a one-time segregationist who “got religion on his biracial electorate,” hired a black staff person, and began doing constituent service for African-Americans, says political scientist Merle Black, an expert on Southern politics at Emory University in Atlanta.

“Cochran followed that model, where he could get some support from blacks, and also get white voters. He was never seriously challenged after 1978, until now,” says Mr. Black. “He didn’t demagogue racial issues.”

Cochran has had African-American staff members since he took office. At a rally for Cochran Monday morning at the Mississippi War Memorial Building in downtown Jackson, black staffers stood along the back wall.

Still, counting on black votes to save Cochran’s seat may be a stretch. Many politically active African-Americans voted in the Democratic primary on June 3, and are not eligible to vote in the runoff.

Also, “Cochran has had to be subtle in how he reaches out to black voters,” says Rickey Hill, chairman of the political scientist department at Jackson State University.

In black neighborhoods, Cochran’s campaign literature touts his support for historically black colleges, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (food stamps), and local medical facilities. In white neighborhoods, he emphasizes his opposition to Obamacare and support for gun rights.

Fredericks, the African-American Cochran supporter at the Gulfport rally on Sunday, says he supports Obama and believes in Obamacare. In fact, he comes from a prominent Democratic political family on the Gulf Coast. His aunt and uncle were both longtime members of the state legislature.

But Fredericks, an insurance broker, voted for Cochran on June 3 and will do so again on Tuesday, because of Cochran’s focus on economic development in Mississippi – agriculture, the local shipyard, military facilities.

And if Cochran wins the runoff on Tuesday, what will Fredericks do in November? Will he vote for the Democrat, former Rep. Travis Childers, or stick with Cochran? He stops and pauses. “I’m not sure,” he says.

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