Republicans and race: why Mississippi drama matters

At an emotional meeting in Chicago, the Republican National Committee steered clear of 'race-baiting' allegations in Mississippi's GOP Senate runoff. But the issue of how Republicans reach out to blacks is very much alive. 

Lee Celano/Reuters and Jonathan Bachman/Reuters
Sen. Thad Cochran (l.) has been declared the winner in a Mississippi Republican primary that Chris McDaniel (r.) is challenging. The election brought up issues of race.

The long drama known as the Mississippi Republican primary of 2014 is winding down. Tea partyer Chris McDaniel’s effort to undo the victory of veteran US Sen. Thad Cochran in a June runoff is headed to state court – at best, a long shot for the young state senator. 

Last week, at its summer meeting in Chicago, the Republican National Committee didn’t want to touch this thing with a 10-foot pole. Ed Martin, chairman of the Missouri GOP, stood alone in his effort to get the RNC to censure Mississippi committeeman Henry Barbour for alleged “race-baiting” in the campaign, and the motion died.

Senator Cochran is poised to win a seventh term in November. But emotions still run high among conservative activists over how the senator got to this point, and over the role of race in Republican politics. In particular, Mr. Martin was upset that pro-Cochran forces used racial arguments against the tea party that are usually deployed by Democrats.

“This is the discussion at the heart of the Republican Party: Are we the party that has certain principles that we’re not willing to give up in order to win elections?” Martin said in an interview at the RNC meeting. “I’m not making this argument in just the Mississippi context.”

But to Martin, the Mississippi runoff brought the issue to the fore. Ads paid for by an outside group run by a black minister and funded by Mr. Barbour’s super-political action committee warned African-American voters that “the tea party intends to prevent you from voting.”

Those ads were “far beyond acceptable,” says Martin, who was reminded of ads that Democrats ran in 2004 accusing US Attorney General John Ashcroft, a Missouri Republican, of trying to block African-Americans from registering to vote.

In fact, Cochran’s outreach to black voters centered mostly on federal largesse to the Magnolia State: He promised to protect funding for food stamps, public education, historically black colleges, and a Gulf Coast shipbuilder. Martin said that argument was fair game, even if he disagreed with it.

“That’s different from the racial stuff,” Martin said. But it was the “racial stuff” that garnered the most attention.

The black vote proved crucial to Cochran’s runoff victory – an extraordinary outcome in a state where the vast majority of blacks vote Democratic and where, 50 years ago, civil rights activists died fighting for African-Americans’ right to vote. Mississippi has the largest proportion of African-Americans of any state, with 37 percent.

Cochran had come in slightly behind Mr. McDaniel In the June 3 primary, and because neither won a majority, they went into a runoff three weeks later. In an effort to expand the GOP electorate, the Cochran campaign and pro-Cochran super PACs reached out aggressively to black voters. People who had not voted in the Democratic primary were eligible to vote in the Republican runoff. (Mississippi has open primaries, and does not register voters by party.)

Barbour’s super PAC – Mississippi Conservatives – provided most of the funding for another super PAC called All Citizens for Mississippi, run by a black minister, Bishop Ronnie Crudup. Barbour says he saw the All Citizens ads in advance and didn’t have a problem with them.

“My view is that Chris McDaniel and a handful of tea party people made plain that they had no interest in African-Americans being able to vote in our primary,” says Barbour. “That’s not good for the party, that’s not good for Mississippi, and I stand strongly against that.”

Inflaming the race issue further was another set of ads tying McDaniel supporters to the Ku Klux Klan. Democratic activists eventually acknowledged making those ads, but not before news reports tied them erroneously to Barbour.

Still, tea party pique toward Barbour and his clan rages on. Uncle Haley Barbour, former governor of Mississippi and ex-chairman of the RNC, raised big bucks for Mississippi Conservatives. Brother Austin Barbour was a top strategist on the Cochran campaign. The Barbours are the first family of Mississippi’s GOP establishment.

Henry Barbour is also a close ally of the current RNC chairman, Reince Priebus, and a co-author of the party’s 2013 Growth and Opportunity Project report – otherwise known as the “autopsy” of the party’s failures in the 2012 election.  

The report is another sore point for Martin, who complained that it was presented as a consensus RNC document when in fact it wasn’t. He said it called on Republicans to “change your position on marriage,” which it actually doesn’t, though some perceive it that way. The report did call on the party to expand its reach, and get over its image as a bunch of “stuffy old men.” The report also embraced “comprehensive immigration reform,” which many Republicans reject as “amnesty.”

In short, the Mississippi GOP primary of 2014 has turned into a proxy for the national party’s larger battles over tone and substance. Martin says he is both “tea party” and “establishment,” but on McDaniel vs. Cochran, he’s the tea party’s man. In Chicago, the group Tea Party Patriots presented him with a report entitled "Mississippi: A Case Study in Republican Race-Baiting." 

At a private breakfast last Thursday, the 168-member RNC met to consider whether to take up the Mississippi runoff. Press were not invited, but according to sources in the room, it was an emotional meeting. Both Barbour and Martin addressed the group, and when no one seconded Martin’s motion to consider a censure of Barbour, the issue died.

RNC members interviewed afterwards said they felt it was not their place to get involved in another state’s primary.

“When there’s a complaint of an election problem, one state doesn’t have a role in another state’s business,” said Shawn Steel, Republican national committeeman for California.

After the meeting, Martin said members told him they agreed with him, even if they weren’t willing to speak up. On Friday, Martin and Barbour had a one-on-one conversation over coffee.

“I got a lot more clarity on where he’s coming from,” Martin said. But “we continue to disagree over the appropriateness of those ads.”

Barbour stands by his position that Bishop Crudup’s outreach to African-American voters was legitimate, both to build support for Cochran and for the larger Republican brand.

“Cochran historically gets 20 to 25 percent of the African American vote,” Barbour says. “I believe this time he’ll have a ‘three’ on the front of that. I think he can get 30 percent.” 

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