Democrats and African-Americans give Republican edge over Tea Party rival

Narrow victory for veteran Mississippi senator

Senator Thad Cochran celebrates with supporters at a victory party in Jackson, Mississippi. Photograph: Edmund D Fountain/The New York Times

Senator Thad Cochran celebrates with supporters at a victory party in Jackson, Mississippi. Photograph: Edmund D Fountain/The New York Times

 

The latest win by the US Republican Party mainstream over the insurgent conservative wing – a narrow victory by veteran Mississippi senator Thad Cochran over Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel in a primary election head-to-head – was secured with help from an unusual quarter: rival Democrats in one of America’s most Republican states.

The 76-year-old senator marginally lost to Mr McDaniel, the 41-year-old state senator born the year before Mr Cochran was first elected to the US Congress, in a June 3rd primary election, but he resurrected his campaign by rallying African- American and Democrat voters in Tuesday’s run-off election to win 51 per cent to 49 per cent.

Mr Cochran, who studied law at Trinity College Dublin for a year in the 1960s, mobilised Democratic voters who had not voted in the June 3rd primary.

Open primary

Mississippi is one of about 23 American states that permit some form of open primary election. The state doesn’t require voters to register with a particular party, so anyone, regardless of party allegiance, who did not vote in the June 3rd election, could vote in the run-off called after neither candidate passed the 50 per cent threshold.

The senator made a last-minute appeal to African-American, Democratic and undecided voters, pointing to the federal government dollars he sent back to one of the poorest state in the country when he had served as chairman of the powerful cash-dispensing Senate appropriation committee in Washington.

The campaign worked, as 30,000 more voters participated in the run-off than in the primary. In some precincts dominated by African- American voters, turnout increased by several thousand votes, backing Mr Cochran overwhelmingly.

“It’s a group effort,” he told supporters after his victory. “We all have a right to be proud of our state tonight.”

He was helped by the mainstream Republican base as it continues to resist Tea Party challengers in a bid to field more moderate candidates against Democrats in November’s midterm elections in the hope of securing the six seats required to regain control of the Senate.

The US Chamber of Commerce and National Republican Senatorial Committee heavily supported Mr Cochran’s campaign, while celebrity and political firepower raised his profile, with former NFL quarterback Brett Favre recording a TV advert for him and Republican senator John McCain, the 2008 presidential nominee, also backing him.

Angry refusal

In the traditional post-election “concession speech”, an angry Mr McDaniel refused to concede defeat, saying there was “something a bit unusual” about a GOP primary being decided by liberal Democrats.

Jonathan Winburn, associate professor of political science at the University of Mississippi, said the primary showed how the Tea Party, founded in 2009 to resist an excessive growth of government, could still be a “competitive force” and raise awareness in the party.

The closely-watched Mississippi battle between the Republican mainstream and conservative grassroots had drawn even more attention after this month’s defeat of Eric Cantor, the second most powerful Republican in the House of Representatives, by a little-known Tea Party rival in one of the most stunning upsets in a US election.

“The name of the game is throwing a scare into moderate Republicans. Coming close means a lot to Tea Party groups,” said Robert Boatright, associate professor of political science at Clark University in Massachusetts and author of Getting Primaried.

“They can spin this election and say, ‘look at how close we got to knocking off Thad Cochran’. If they spin this the right way, it is almost as good as a win.”