The Steep, Steep Price of Thad Cochran’s Victory in Mississippi
The Republican Party has to stand for more than “just win, baby.”
If you’re a Republican who went all out for Thad Cochran’s win last week, I hope you’re looking at yourself in the mirror and asking yourself whether Cochran’s victory was worth it. Because the price looks awfully steep – i.e., having a Republican candidate denounce the conservative positions of his opponent and a big chunk of the grassroots.
Great, a 76-year-old who wanted to retire is now a favorite to return for a seventh term. Look, I get it, Chris McDaniel had more rough edges than sandpaper origami, and yes, there was always the likelihood that the Democrats would attempt to turn him into the Todd Akin of this cycle. But anytime a Republican tries to beat another Republican by adopting the rhetoric of the Democrats, they’re playing with fire.
Was Thad Cochran’s victory worth having a Republican explicitly running on the glory of earmarks and the value of large federal spending projects in the state? Why not just hold up a giant flashing neon sign saying “WE DON’T REALLY CARE ABOUT THE SIZE OF GOVERNMENT”?
Was it worth running radio ads declaring, “By not voting, you’re saying, ‘Take away all of my government programs, such as food stamps, early breakfast and lunch programs, millions of dollars to our black universities”?
Was Cochran’s victory worth a flyer like this one, contending that the Tea Party is racist?
Yes, yes, the Cochran backers will insist they themselves had nothing to do with those radio ads or flyers. They just happened to benefit from messaging that demonized the positions of the grassroots.
Once a Republican candidate is running on those messages…how many differences with the Democrats are left? “Hi, I’m the candidate of bringing home the bacon and higher spending, and I think the Tea Party is racist. But I’m completely different from the Democrat, I swear!”
When a candidate campaigns on limited government and other conservative positions, he’s making a sales pitch for policy positions and a philosophy that some other candidate can run on in the future. When a candidate campaigns on his spot on the Appropriations Committee, and his seniority, and his long history of bringing back federal funding for state projects, he’s making a sales pitch that is completely non-transferrable to any other candidate, now or later. Next time around, some Democrat – some liberal Democrat! – will be able to make the plausible case that they’ll bring back more pork than the other guy. The arguments of the Cochran campaign helped their man – and by contending this is the proper criteria for electing senators, they’re also helping some populist Democrat in a couple of years.
Is this is the new strategy for Republicans? Abandon any pretense of being the party of limited government in an effort to win over the Democratic base?
Consider Ronny Barrett, a 56-year-old mechanic from Jackson and a black Democrat who voted for Cochran on June 3 and again Tuesday.
“Sen. Cochran has done a lot of things for the black community, and a lot of people in the black community know that,” Barrett said at Cochran’s victory party. “First time in my life I voted Republican. … I think I’ll vote Republican again.”
Because Mississippi voters don’t register by party, it’s impossible to know exactly how many Democrats or independents voted for Cochran. But turnout increased by almost 70,000 votes over the June 3 turnout, and Cochran improved his vote totals substantially in several key counties, including about 7,000 additional votes in Hinds, the seat of state government; more than 1,000 in Harrison and more than 1,200 in Jackson, both coastal counties.
The good news is that Ronny Barrett voted Republican and may vote Republican again. The bad news is that it doesn’t appear that the Cochran campaign made much of an argument to Barrett and other Democratic-leaning African-American voters other than, “I’ll bring home the federal spending that matters to you.”
A few Cochran backers are insisting this is a triumph of GOP outreach to minorities. But the methods of Cochran’s campaign aren’t transferrable to candidates who aren’t veteran
porkmeister Appropriations Committee members. And what good is this method? Denounce your base and promise to give the other party’s base what they want? You might as well switch parties. Arlen Specter and Charlie Crist did.
Now Cochran’s new allies expect him to oppose efforts at voter ID:
NAACP Mississippi State President Derrick Johnson said in an interview that they are looking for Cochran’s support.
“Two things that we think should come immediately after the election [are] his support of the Voting Rights act… free of any provisions that would allow for voter ID and, second, to get the presidents of the black colleges to ask for his offices for help to make sure the mission of those institutions are carried out,” he said.
We can find all this frustrating, but not surprising. From the February 11 Morning Jolt:
McDaniel says he’s willing to draw a hard line on pork, but that’s another issue that seems to be more appealing in the abstract than when actual projects, jobs, and dollars are at stake. Bringing home federal spending hasn’t hurt Cochran in any of his previous six Senate campaigns, nor was it much of an issue for, say, former Mississippi senator Trent Lott.
The “Just win, baby” motto is attributed to the late Al Davis, owner of the Oakland (and briefly Los Angeles) Raiders. Davis’ approach did work quite well for a while… and then from 1990 to 2010, they had seven seasons above .500.