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In Mississippi

Blacks Regain Their Sway At The Polls Against Tea Party


JACKSON, Miss.—For the first time since President Richard M. Nixon’s divisive “Southern strategy” that sent whites to the Republican Party and Blacks to the Democrats, Black voters have come out in force for a Republican in the Deep South.

Now they are hoping to flex political muscles long atrophied after supporting U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran (Rep., Miss.) last week in his runoff victory against a Tea Party challenger.

“We’re in a moment here,” said Floyd Smith, a longtime Black political worker who canvassed Jackson’s Black precincts for Sen. Cochran. “Black folks went out and voted for a Republican. That’s history.”

The Mississippi voters who handed Sen. Cochran his narrow victory over State Senator Chris McDaniel were a complex and historic amalgam of Black Democrats, rural and suburban white Republicans, and even union members, all put off by Mr. McDaniel’s rhetorical broadsides and austere promises.

Although Cochran campaign officials and longtime Democratic officials said white Republican voters probably made the biggest difference in Sen. Cochran’s victory, Blacks turned out in record numbers for a Mississippi Republican primary.

They were driven, in part, by Sen. Cochran’s organization and outreach, but also by a sense, they said, that Mr. McDaniel had been overly vicious in his attacks on President Barack Obama and incendiary in the racial undertones of his pitch to white voters that “it’s time to defend our way of life again.”

Black voters said that with the long odds for any Democrat in a statewide election here, both Sen. Cochran and Mr. McDaniel would most likely beat the Democratic candidate, former Representative Travis Childers, in November. Given that choice, they said they preferred Sen. Cochran.

“People saw the Tea Party as the bigger threat,” said Carl Brown, a Black 44-year-old pastor, who was sitting in Scott’s Style Shop, a barbershop in Yazoo City. “They’re on the news saying, ‘We want to go back to the good old days. ’ Good old days for who?”

The Cochran campaign’s effort to get Black votes attracted attention all over the country--praise in some circles, outrage in others. Rush Limbaugh on Tuesday upbraided “Black Uncle Tom voters” who turned out for Sen. Cochran.

Mr. McDaniel, at his late night “victory rally,” refused to concede and vowed to fight on against “irregularities” and the “liberal Democrats” who decided the contest, although he said late Wednesday that he had not yet decided on a court challenge. Mississippi election law does not provide for recounts.

Cochran allies said the cross-party outreach was historic, significant and, they hoped, a sign of things to come.

“African-Americans spoke loud and clear, that they are engaged, that they want good government and that they are paying attention to those of us in government,” said State Senator Willie Simmons, a Black Democrat who supported Sen. Cochran. “The message is we should be cognizant of their vote, regardless of our party.”

Mayor George Flaggs Jr. of Vicksburg, who is Black and also supported Sen. Cochran, said the moment must not be allowed to slip away.

“For Blacks, it is imperative that we look at the process and try to maximize our efforts by utilizing our voting power as best we can,” he said.

As a practical matter, that could mean pushing Mississippi officials for expanded Black voting rights or more access to affordable health care, Black leaders here said. After all, in defending his outreach, Sen. Cochran himself said: “I think it’s important for everybody to participate. Voting rights has been an issue of great importance in Mississippi.”

Others said Blacks would have new leverage with Sen. Cochran. “He owes them an ear,” Mr. Simmons said. “He owes them an opportunity to sit and engage with him just like any other group. Senator Cochran could have a very different opinion about some of these things and vote a different way after this experience.”

Returns showed that Sen. Cochran beat Mr. McDaniel by around 6,700 votes out of 376,000 votes cast last week.

Nearly 63,000 more voters went to the polls than on June 3, and both candidates raised their totals. Sen. Cochran just raised his more.

In Mississippi’s 25 majority-Black counties, Sen. Cochran was able to increase his totals by at least 13,114 votes, more than double his margin of victory.

In Hinds County alone, which is home to Jackson and 70 percent Black, he got at least 6,448 more votes than before.

In the predominantly Black Delta town of Cleveland, Black leaders texted, car-pooled and telephoned on Sen. Cochran’s behalf, hoping to prove their ballot clout--but not necessarily loyalty to the candidate, they said. The town and surrounding Bolivar County gave 72 percent of the vote to Sen. Cochran, up from 68 percent on June 3. Turnout on Tuesday in the county increased sharply in Black precincts.

“It should send a message, ‘Hey, don’t count us out, we have the largest Black vote in the U.S.,’ ” said Ned Tolliver, 71, a Black retired school principal in Cleveland. “It shows that we have the power to elect who we want to elect when the time is right.”

That said, even in majority-Black districts in the Delta, many—if not most--of the increase may well have been white Republicans, a possibility reinforced by a study of preliminary precinct returns in Yazoo County.

Hayes Dent, a Cochran organizer in charge of vote-wrangling in the Delta, said many traditional Republican voters assumed Sen. Cochran, a six-term incumbent, would win his primary.

They needed a wake-up call, and they got one June 3, when Mr. McDaniel narrowly edged Sen. Cochran but was forced into a runoff by a minor candidate.

“Were there people who didn’t traditionally turn out for Republican primaries? Yes, I’m sure there were,” Mr. Dent said. “But I can tell you in the 17 counties that I managed, that’s not what did the deal.”

In fact, he said, the news media attention around Sen. Cochran’s Black voter outreach “without a doubt” energized McDaniel voters to turn out in stronger numbers on Tuesday, possibly nullifying the additional Black votes.

Cochran campaign officials said white catfish farmers, cotton growers and other traditionally reliable Republicans in the Delta who sat out the initial primary were dragged to the polls by Sen. Cochran’s revitalized ground game and were constantly reminded of the senator’s efforts on their behalf.

At the same time, union workers at the Gulf Coast’s giant Ingalls shipyard grew alarmed at Mr. McDaniel’s calls for deep federal spending cuts.

“It was just a scary situation to know that some of the things that he stood up and said he would do would take away the jobs here at the shipyard,” said Michael S. Crawley, the 68-year-old president of the Pascagoula Metal Trades Council and a die-hard Democrat.

Sen. Cochran began reaching out to Black voters as far back as Memorial Day weekend, when he joined more than a hundred prominent African-Americans for a fund-raiser and brainstorming session at the home of a Black physician in Hinds County.

Gathering over plates of barbecue on the lush lawn as night fell, Sen. Cochran talked about why he was seeking another term, and the group--which included about 30 pastors, as well as business, civil and health care leaders in the Jackson area—discussedwhy it was in Blacks’ interest to support Sen. Cochran.

By the final weeks before the runoff, Blacks were fully mobilized.

Ronnie C. Crudup Sr., a pastor of the New Horizon Church International in Jackson, helped lead the effort, and he said that roughly 1,000 people were engaged in the push--phone banking, knocking on doors and passing out fliers, or making the pitch to Sunday congregations.

The outreach also included registering Black voters absentee, to help those who were going to be out of town during the runoff, as well as those who did not necessarily feel comfortable entering a polling station to vote in a Republican primary.

For Democrats, in Washington and in Mississippi, who believed they could beat Mr. McDaniel in a general election, the crossover votes for Sen. Cochran were a major disappointment. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was preparing a major push for Mr. Childers, a conservative former House member.

“I certainly hated to see many members of our party cross over yesterday in a primary that quite frankly I felt like we had no business in,” Mr. Childers said.

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