Black Voters' New Path to Power

The Republican primary in Mississippi was won by the candidate with black support because African-American voters were smart enough to intervene. They should do every time.

John Fitzhugh/Biloxi Sun Herald/Getty

Conventional wisdom says black voters are the most reliable Democratic voting blocs in American politics. But Tuesday’s election results in the U.S. Senate race in Mississippi prove to many what I’ve always understood about African Americans: They are some of the smartest voters when it comes to their interests.

Incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran is being hailed as a smart, albeit desperate politician, for reaching across the aisle to pursue traditionally black Democratic voters to hold off a furious campaign by Tea Partier state Sen. Chris McDaniel.

McDaniel, who blasted Cochran as not being conservative enough, had to endure flak early in the campaign for racially insensitive remarks made years ago. His far right-wing vision for America—and Mississippi—scared to death the Republican establishment. And black folks!

Maybe it’s fitting that the Cochran-McDaniel runoff took place during the week of the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, the massive effort during the Civil Rights Movement to pry apart Jim Crow from the clutches of Mississippi’s virulent racists.

In that effort black voters stood up to bigotry and discrimination, but not without a price, such as the brutal murders of three civil rights workers: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

Voting rights was at the heart of Freedom Summer, and 50 years later, the state with the highest percentage of black residents made clear they wouldn’t go down without a fight.

There is no denying that Cochran’s political career would be over today had black voters not voted in the open Republican runoff. He beat McDaniel by 6,300 votes after garnering fewer votes than him in the primary. The margins he rolled up in places like Hinds County, a major black stronghold, tells the story: Cochran bested McDaniel by nearly 11,000 votes.

Black voters made it clear: They may not like the conservative politics of Cochran on most issues, but having McDaniel represent them in the U.S. Senate was not going to happen.

I was more than pleased to see this strategy because it has long been my belief that with so many African Americans living in the South, and solely voting Democratic, they were diluting their power and influence.

Despite efforts by Democrats, it’s a losing proposition in statewide races in Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina. In presidential and U.S. Senate races, and nearly all statewide positions, the GOP can pencil in a win before the first ballot is even cast, and all Democrats have left is to say, “Better luck next time.”

It’s not that a vote for a Dem is wasted, but if you know your candidate stands little chance of winning in the general election, that’s pretty much what it is.

So maybe what black voters should be doing in the South is saying to the GOP: your candidates need to not ignore us or we’ll cross party lines and make the man or woman we can’t stomach pay.

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Cochran not only had to pursue a clearly defined black voter strategy, but he also had to pay for it with campaign resources. And there is no doubt that he had to make political promises to lure support.

Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi state branch of the NAACP, told me Wednesday on my syndicated radio show that Cochran’s office reached out to him several times. While not endorsing the incumbent, Johnson told them that his top priority in Congress is the re-authorization of the Voting Rights Act, which was severely crippled by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Johnson said there isn’t a single Republican sponsor of the bill in the U.S. Senate, and Cochran should be the first. The senator and his staff didn’t commit, but it’s going to be hard for him to back away from a major request when his political life was extended by the very folks Johnson also represents.

In fact, Johnson said the presidents of historically black colleges like Jackson State, Alcorn State, Mississippi Valley State, Rust and Tougaloo should be preparing extensive resources requests for Cochran. And he had the same advice for the 81 black mayors across Mississippi.

Politics is all about leverage, influence and power. It’s about extracting a return on investment for your vote, and for too long, the GOP has ignored black voters, not even making the effort to pursue them. McDaniel made it clear he wasn’t trying to be the U.S. senator for all of Mississippi. He only wanted to go to Washington, D.C., to represent his right-wing constituents.

But black voters, regardless of who they support, are constituents. And whether their preferred candidate wins or loses, they have a right to demand from their representative an array of services.

By embracing a “cross-the-line” electoral strategy in the South, black voters could have a major say in which Republican will represent them. And such a plan could force the GOP to come to the table and ask black voters the same thing they ask everyone else, “How can I be of assistance?”