How far did the establishment GOP forces backing Senator Thad Cochran go in Mississippi this week? Too far, and their tactics are likely to leave permanent scars in a civil war with Tea Party forces that are out of all proportion to the importance the establishment placed on saving one 76-year-old senator’s ability to please Washington’s K Street lobbying interests.
“This is a win for the establishment, but it’s a win with an asterisk, because it’s so tainted that it might be one of those things where they’re going to be sorry they ever won the runoff in Mississippi,” Craig Shirley, a political consultant and the author of two respected biographies of Ronald Reagan, told Yahoo News this week.
The key to Cochran’s surprising victory was a disproportionately high turnout in precincts with high Democratic registration. Mississippi law permits voters to cross party lines in primaries, but it prohibits members of one party who voted in their party’s primary to participate in a runoff of the other party. It also bars them from voting in the runoff unless they intend to support the resulting nominee in the November election — an unenforceable requirement, but one that showed that the intent of the election law was, in this case, to let Republicans determine their own nominee.
The tactics used to convince black Democrats to vote for Cochran included the same kind of race-baiting that Republicans have complained about for decades. “The Tea Party Intends To Prevent Blacks From Voting on Tuesday” was the headline on a flier that indefatigable journalist Charles Johnson (twitter #chuckcjohnson) discovered had been distributed in heavily black precincts before the June 23 vote. Along with that unfounded incendiary message was a list of issue comparisons between Cochran and Chris McDaniel. Cochran was credited with such unconservative positions as support for federal pork projects and food-stamp funding. The flier carried no identification as to who produced it, a violation of federal law.
Curiously, another flier put out by the pro-Cochran Mississippi Conservatives PAC last week described Cochran’s positions in nearly identical language as the anonymous flier and even carried an identical photo of the senator. The slogan that Thad Cochran “Supports All Mississippians” is the same in both fliers.
“I don’t know who put it out,” former governor Haley Barbour, who raised boatloads of money for the Mississippi Conservatives PAC, told my colleague Eliana Johnson. “I can’t imagine the Cochran campaign did that.”
But the Mississippi Conservatives PAC did engage in its own questionable tactics. A mysterious robo-call went out to thousands of Democratic households just before the June 23 vote. The female narrator’s message was as follows: “By not voting, you are saying ‘take away all of my government programs, such as food stamps, early breakfast and lunch programs, millions of dollars to our black universities . . . everything we and our families depend on that comes from Washington will be cut.”
As the Washington Examiner reported: “It turns out that former Republican Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s pro-Cochran Super PAC, Mississippi Conservatives, shelled out $44,000 for an offensive robo-call urging black Democrat voters to vote for Thad Cochran in the Republican primary Tuesday.”
There has been much speculation about the offensive robo-call, which trashes the Tea Party for “their disrespectful treatment of the first African American president.” The female narrator claimed that Tea Party candidate Chris McDaniel would cause “even more problems for President Obama.”
As I said, the wounds from all of this are likely to be long lasting.
“This just threw gasoline onto the flames of the civil war,” Richard Viguerie, the author of Takeover: The 100 Year War for the GOP’s Soul, told reporters this week. “What happened yesterday in Mississippi will resonate for years to come. It will become the battle cry, just like the Alamo. We will remember Mississippi.”
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.