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Black voters may have buoyed Thad Cochran in Mississippi

Mississippi Republican Senator Thad Cochran probably owes his reelection to black Democrats, and there's nothing wrong with that.
Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) makes a campaign stop at a cafe in Jackson, Miss.
Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) makes a campaign stop at a cafe in Jackson, Miss., June 11, 2014.

Thad Cochran needed to be rescued. The incumbent Republican Senator from Mississippi looked likely to lose Tuesday's runoff to Chris McDaniel, a tea party challenger who castigated Cochran for being too chummy with Democrats despite a decades-long conservative record.

Cochran's last resort was to plead with Mississippi's black voters to carry him over the line. And it may have worked.

The extent to which Cochran owes his narrow primary victory to Democrats or black voters has yet to be hashed out, but it's clear from early analysis that black voting played some role. Mississippi law states you can't vote in a runoff for one party if you voted in the primary of another. 

Conservative groups recruited an army of poll watchers to send to the polls in the state. When McDaniel lost, it was certainly Cochran's appeal to the state's mostly black Democratic voters that was on his mind.

"There is something a bit strange, there is something a bit unusual about a Republican primary that's decided by liberal Democrats," McDaniel barked Tuesday night after refusing to concede.

“Today the conservative movement took a backseat to liberal Democrats in Mississippi," he added,.

Conservatives may cry foul over McDaniel's loss, whether or not it's proven that Democrats made the difference. But there's nothing wrong with crossing over to vote for the lesser of two evils in a primary in a place like Mississippi, where the result of the Republican primary for statewide office usually determines the outcome of the general election. It's not even unique to Mississippi or this election -- those of us who live in Washington, D.C. are quite familiar with the concept. The Democratic primary almost always determines who will win the general election of citywide office in D.C., people who would be Republicans anywhere else register as Democrats so as to have a voice in the process. McDaniel himself voted Democratic a decade ago.

Mississippi of course, has an ugly history of one-party rule. Racist Democrats essentially took over the state through terrorism and violent insurrection in the 1870s, after the federal government gave up on trying to protect the rights of the freedmen. Racist disenfranchisement ensured that Democrats would control the state's affairs for almost another century, until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 enfranchised the state's black residents. The Voting Rights Act did not magically end Mississippi's voting problems, one lawsuit after another challenged ever more creative attempts to limit the influence of black voters -- state lawmakers in the 1990s referred to districts carved out to dilute black voting power as "nigger districts." The first black representative from the state since Reconstruction was not elected until the 1980s, and it hasn't had a black Senator since Blanche Bruce left office in 1881. 

Northern withdrawal from the South, Republican indifference to black rights after Reconstruction, and black economic gains from the New Deal drew blacks to the Democratic Party. Black Americans make up nearly 40% of the population in the state, and today they mostly vote Democratic, but with the near total exodus of whites from the Democratic Party, Republicans almost always win statewide elections. The winner of Tuesday's primary would have almost certainly determined the outcome of the general election, and given McDaniel's record -- opposition to the social safety net, ties to Neo-Confederate groups, and affinity for anti-Obama conspiracy theorists -- black voters in the state may have felt the stakes were higher than normal.

There's nothing dirty, unfair or wrong about Democrats in Mississippi stepping into the GOP primary to vote for Cochran. Black strategic voting to sway the politics of a party that seems hostile to their interests is essentially the story of how the modern Democratic Party came to be. With the outcome of the general election determined by the Republican primary, crossing over was the best way for Democrats to leverage any meaningful potential influence on the victor. Whether Cochran actually remembers who he owes his office to is an open question.

Mississippi is an American state, not a conservative fiefdom where right-wing activists are entitled to unchallenged influence over its affairs and politics. The ugliest aspect to Mississippi's primary is not Tuesday night's crossover voting, it's the suggestion that some votes shouldn't count.