The longer the results of the Mississippi GOP Senate runoff remain in any sort of doubt, the more public discussion of the Republican Party’s attitude toward the African-American voters who seem to have played a key role in re-nominating Sen. Thad Cochran becomes a potentially dangerous topic for the party as a whole.
On Monday the Mississippi GOP certified Cochran as the winner, clearing the way for whatever legal action Team McDaniel and its tea party allies choose to pursue. For this challenge to have any chance of success, it will have to involve a very abrasive effort to suggest the widespread enlistment of Democrats (which generally means African-Americans in this racially polarized state) by Cochran represents both “voter fraud” in the legal sense and corruption in the moral sense. This latter theme is important because only the fear that the Cochran win will become a legendary “corrupt bargain” poisoning intra-party relations this November and beyond could motivate Republican officials to take the discretionary measures that Mississippi law seems to demand, given the absence of any legal requirement for a recount or revote even if there’s widespread evidence of what McDaniel’s supporters are delicately calling “irregularities.”
So for the immediate future, we’re going to hear ever-more-shrill arguments from the right in Mississippi and elsewhere that by appealing to African-Americans on the positive grounds of potency in securing federal dollars, and the negative grounds that the challenger is a bit of a neo-Confederate, Cochran’s campaign replicated the Democratic “race card” appeals that conservatives so violently resent.
Since state Sen. McDaniel’s campaign cannot repudiate the very idea of outreach to African-Americans (particularly in a state where black folks make up well over a third of the population), it’s forced into an argument that outreach can only be pursued via the right kind of message to the right kind of African-Americans. McDaniel’s campaign manager, state Sen. Melanie Sojourner, exposed the perils of that argument in a Facebook post wherein she pledged never to endorse Cochran no matter what the party decides:
Throughout my campaign and since I’ve repeatedly made comments about how I felt the Republican Party was doing itself a disservice by not reaching out to conservative African-Americans. Where I’m from, in rural Mississippi, I grew up knowing lots a [sic] God-fearing, hard-working, independent conservative minded African-American family’s [sic]. On the McDaniel campaign we had two young men from just such family’s on our staff.
So it seems anything other than appealing to self-consciously conservative African-Americans is forbidden.
Aside from the implied suggestion that the vast majority of African-Americans are not God-fearing or hard-working, and may actually be selling their votes for government benefits (a charge at the rotten heart of the many extant GOP versions of Mitt Romney’s “47 percent video”), how likely is it that the kind of minority outreach deemed kosher by this and other conservative activists could actually succeed? Not very.
Despite the many rationalizations and revisionist takes we hear about the GOP and race during the 1960s, the truth is Republican support among African-Americans collapsed dramatically at the moment of the first conservative movement conquest of the GOP, in 1964, and has never recovered.
From the New Deal through 1960, the GOP share of the African-American vote in presidential elections averaged about 30 percent; it was 32 percent in 1960, in part because a lot of African-American clergy shared their white Protestants’ antipathy to the Catholic John F. Kennedy (who also, of course, was supported by many southern segregationists). But in 1964, even as Barry Goldwater was sweeping the white vote in much of the deep south after he voted against the Civil Rights Act, the GOP share of the black vote plunged to 6 percent. (That didn’t much matter in Mississippi, as it happens, since African-Americans outside a few cities were largely barred from voting; Goldwater took 87 percent of the vote in the Magnolia State).
African-American support for GOP presidential candidates has since peaked at 15 percent twice in years the party promoted a “centrist” image (1968 and 1976). The Great Communicator of the conservative message, Ronald Reagan, pulled 12 percent and 9 percent of the black vote in his two general elections. There was great excitement in 2004 when George W. Bush, deploying both “compassionate conservatism” and hostility to same-sex marriage, won 11 percent of the African-American vote. And now, as of 2012, the vote share is back down to 6 percent, right where it was in 1964.
The idea that becoming more conservative is going to lift the prospects of Republicans among African-Americans is a complete hallucination. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say, reflecting Sojourner’s comments, that conservatives want African-Americans to change before they are worthy of outreach. And in a place like Mississippi, that means the GOP will remain the White People’s Party perpetually fearing black encroachment on its White Primary by “corrupt” pols like Cochran who dare suggest that representing constituents is more important than maintaining pure conservative ideology.
It’s possible if the “crossover” furor drags on, the Mississippi runoff could wind up becoming to GOP prospects among African-Americans what the disastrous handling of immigration reform legislation has become to GOP prospects among Latinos: a reminder that ideology trumps all, and voters who don’t share it simply aren’t welcome.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at theProgressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.