WASHINGTON — African-American Democratic voters in Mississippi saved Republican Sen. Thad Cochran from sure defeat at the hands of a Tea Party challenger. The question now is whether the long-serving Cochran will return the favor to his newfound constituency. The likely answer is yes. Historically, politicians are responsive to a key voting bloc; that’s how they stay in office.
Cochran defended the role of the federal government and how it has improved the lives of people in his state. He stopped trying to burnish his conservative credentials, a losing cause against his far more conservative challenger. His retooled pro-government message brought out the black vote, boosting turnout by as much as 40 percent in some precincts.
Cochran still has to face a Democrat in November, but his near-death experience in vying for a seventh six-year term forced him to look beyond traditional Republicans for votes, an exercise in coalition building that could have repercussions beyond Mississippi.
Call it the Cochran Coalition, a combination of like-minded people who came together across party lines to support the 76-year-old courtly senator and to stop Chris McDaniel, a flamboyant, 41-year-old former talk show host who vowed to end Mississippi’s dependence on federal money.
On election night, McDaniel railed against liberal Democrats deciding the outcome of a Republican primary. “This is not the party of Reagan,” he declared, apparently forgetting that Reagan won the presidency on the strength of crossover votes from blue-collar Democrats.
Reagan stayed beholden to those voters, who were dubbed Reagan Democrats. He championed their cultural values, and he revived the economy after the oil shocks and high interest rates of the 1970s. He cut taxes, more for the wealthy but also for the middle-class, and it wasn’t until Bill Clinton came along in 1992 that Democrats were able to pry away enough of the blue-collar Reagan Democrats to win back the White House.
Cochran has given Republicans a road map for how to win beyond their narrow base. His victory Tuesday is all the more extraordinary because it happened in Mississippi on the 50th anniversary of freedom summer, when hundreds of young people from the North joined forces with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to register black people to vote. It is a fitting tribute that Mississippi voters could come together beyond race and partisan affiliation to recognize their self-interest in supporting Cochran.
Cochran did his part in pointing out that much of the state’s economy is built on federal money he helped secure for defense installations, hospitals, universities and highways. He is in line to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee if Republicans gain control of the Senate in November, a position that will further extend his power and seniority in Washington.
Over the last two decades, the average amount of taxes collected from Mississippi was $8 billion; the average amount of money it got back from Washington was $17 billion, a 1 to 2 ratio, which is why McDaniel’s message was doomed once voters started to pay attention.
It’s one thing to demonize the federal government, but quite another to threaten spending on schools, hurricane disaster relief, and the array of social safety programs that Mississippi residents count on to help level the playing field in a state that ranks near or at the bottom in economic surveys.
Watching a Republican move to the left to win a GOP primary is a spectacle in itself, but the larger message here is that Republicans who moderate their message can win with crossover votes. It’s a formula Ronald Reagan rode all the way to the White House.