In open primary Southern states, black voters flex new muscle

Sen. Thad Cochran could not have won the Mississippi Republican primary without thousands of black voters, mostly Democrats, in an open primary. Opponent Chris McDaniel is steamed, but others may learn a lesson.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP
Supporters of Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., cheer as he is declared the winner in his primary runoff for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate, thanks in part to black Mississippians who turned out to vote for him in an open primary.

An unexpected group of voters charged in to save veteran Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran, a Republican, from losing a primary squeaker against a tea party challenger: Black Democrats.

Cochran’s challenger, Chris McDaniel, lashed out at how Cochran’s camp used the state’s open primary system – where anyone, regardless of party, can vote – to entice Democrats, many of them black, to come to the polls on Tuesday.

But Cochran’s ability to rally about 35,000 Democrats, a critical number of them African-American, in order to get a slim majority is being mulled across the South – especially in Georgia and Alabama, two other open primary states with big contests coming up – as a new, potentially powerful dynamic that could be a force in reshaping the Republican party and even provide an electoral counterweight to tea party challengers from the party’s right flank.

To be sure, Thad Cochran, who has brought millions in earmarks to one of the poorest states in the union, is a man with many friends, which is one of the reasons why the tea party movement targeted him as a false conservative, and a big-spending Washington fat cat to boot.

But lots of black voters may have responded to pleas from his campaign because Cochran has made a connection with them, too, over the years, given that blacks represent 37 percent of the state’s population. Over 36 years in congress, Cochran has regularly drawn over 70 percent of the vote, meaning lots of Democrats vote for him too.

But that a large number of those conservative Democrats pulled levers in the Republican primary suggests other factors at play, especially in rock-ribbed conservative states like Mississippi.

“If you are in a district where the GOP dominates and the primary is the de facto general election … then you might have some people who say, ‘I want skin in the game,’” says Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political scientist in Atlanta, and author of “The New Black Politician.” “People generally hate Congress, but they typically like their member of Congress.”

After a shaky start to his campaign, Cochran’s campaign staff turned away from TV and radio ads and instead spent money on identifying specific voters who might respond to Cochran’s plea. Much of that effort was aimed at potential black voters, whose eventual response became the critical margin of victory.

That strategy certainly worked along several fronts. Indeed, the decision by black Democrats to vote for Cochran in the Republican primary, may have had more to do with his challenger, Mr. McDaniel, whose tea party credentials rubbed a lot of blacks the wrong way. Wrongly or rightly, the tea party movement has long been tagged with a reputation for racialized politics.

"This is not a one-time situation," D’Andra Orey, a political science professor at Jackson State University, in Mississippi, told the Associated Press. "Blacks do recognize their power in the vote, and in this particular case, blacks saw that they could actually defeat or be a strong influence ... in defeating McDaniel."

The Mississippi primary race isn’t quite over. In refusing to concede, a bitter McDaniel told supporters that “the conservative movement took a backseat to liberal Democrats in Mississippi.”

But dismissing Democrats out of hand as party spoilers may be missing a critical lesson for Republicans, political scientists suggest.

For one, if black voters really intended to spoil the GOP’s party, they may have done better supporting McDaniel, who would have likely had a tougher time defeating a Democratic challenger than Cochran will in November.

Moreover, more African-Americans are, at least according to some polls, ready to hear a more conservative message. While only 2 percent of black voters are registered as Republicans, and only 7 percent voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, the Pew polling organization found in May that 17 percent of African-Americans now lean Republican, which boosted an earlier NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll that showed a 5 percentage-point increase in blacks who said they’ll go GOP in November.

Indeed, some political strategists took the outcome as a sign that, despite lots of evidence to the contrary, Republicans can in fact connect with minority voters on a scale that can tip elections.

With black voter participation, even in mid-term elections, rising faster than any other group, Republican strategist Tara Wall told the Monitor recently that “at this stage in the game, no one can take black voters for granted.”

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