Saturday, June 28, 2014

Tea Party in hot water:
Rewriting the rules in Mississippi, and elsewhere

UNLESS YOU’VE been vacationing under a rock on the floor of the Marianas Trench, you certainly know about the deeply passionate, teeth-grinding rage now endured by the Tea Party movement, in the wake of the latest in a series of embarrassing defeats, one of which recalibrates the received wisdom about race and Republican politics. Conservatives haven’t been this upset in weeks.

The Tea Party’s candidate in Mississippi for the U.S. Senate, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, 42, got schooled on Tuesday by the incumbent, Sen. Thad Cochran, 76, a Republican senator for 35 years; a man with the closest thing to a courtly demeanor the Republicans have had for a long time; a Mississippian who was first elected senator when McDaniel was all of seven venerable years old.

Tea Party defeat was contagious on Tuesday. In Oklahoma, Rep. James Lankford handily defeated former state House Speaker T.W. Shannon in the GOP Senate primary. Shannon, who is Native American and African-American, had the support of Tea Party darlings Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and former Alaska governor and political personality Sarah Palin®, in the race to succeed the retiring Tom Coburn.

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Besides the obvious generational derision McDaniel may be privately enduring — hot damn, Chris, you let that old man beat you? What’s the world coming to? — he and the Tea Partiers are also forced to confront a fallacy in their fundamental distrust in congressional longevity: Since no one gets to be a senator for a single 35-year stretch, what happened in Mississippi on Tuesday was, at the end of the day, Mississippi’s latest vote of confidence in Thad Cochran.

For all the attention on Cochran’s narrow but deafening victory over McDaniel last night (by 2 points, a margin too thin for a sheet of paper to get through), despite the concerns about Cochran’s age and controversy over his campaign tactics and some intemperate statements made on the eve of Tuesday’s vote, you have to look back about eight years to see why he won this week.

In April 2006, Time, in a catalog of profiles of what the magazine called “America's 10 Best Senators,” quoted a senior Republican senator talking about Cochran and what made his strong re-election record possible: “He doesn't get a whole lot of play in terms of coverage,” the senator said, “but he is effectively stubborn doing what needs to be done.”

Thirty-five years is a long time to keep a job you’re not doing the right way.

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LOSING WAS bad enough for McDaniel and the Mississippi Tea Party. What’s made it worse — the sting that’s been resonating throughout conservative ranks in general — is the fact that Cochran’s margin of victory in Tuesday’s open primary was probably made possible by Democratic voters. Black Democratic voters.

They’re still working out the numbers, but it’s apparent that African American voters supported Cochran over McDaniel. In the process, Cochran and those voters have rewritten the longstanding equation that defines the racial politics of Mississippi — and other states too. The enemy of my enemy is my friend indeed.

Patrik Jonsson in The Christian Science Monitor writes: “Cochran’s ability to rally about 35,000 Democrats, a critical number of them African-American, in order to get a slim majority is being mulled across the South – especially in Georgia and Alabama, two other open primary states with big contests coming up – as a new, potentially powerful dynamic that could be a force in reshaping the Republican party and even provide an electoral counterweight to tea party challengers from the party’s right flank.”

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Which shouldn’t really be a surprise to the national media: In 1980, not long after Cochran was first elected senator, there were about 887,000 black Mississippians. By the 2010 Census, there were 1.1 million black Mississippians, about 37 percent of the state’s population.

You don’t have to know any more about the history of Cochran’s career than the raw numbers and common sense. Over 35 years of consistently winning as a Republican, in a state with a steadily growing percentage of black residents, Cochran certainly got his share of black Democratic votes a long time before Tuesday.

For Cochran, seeking the black vote in a tough campaign wasn’t political exotica, it was politics as usual. For those voters who’ve lived in the state long enough to realize some of the $3 billion in earmarks (federal appropriations for specific state projects) the senator tried to bring to the state between 2008 and 2010, voting for Cochran wasn’t apostasy. It was realpolitik.

These toweringly inconvenient facts erase the whiteboards of Republican and conservative strategies for this November and, significantly, for 2016. With African American votes — and, certainly, Latino votes as well — able to be put in play by comparatively accessible GOP incumbents like Cochran elsewhere around the country, there’s maybe, maybe a path to broader success for mainstream Republicans. If they have the courage to realize that, for these shifts to be any more than occasional anomalies, they’ll have to change more than the GOP “branding” of the moment.

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MCDANIEL AND his supporters won’t go quietly. On election night, in the height of a sore-losing campaign, he was introduced by a supporter as "the Republican nominee.”

“There’s something strange about a Republican primary that’s decided by liberal Democrats,” said McDaniel, in a furious refusal to concede the race. “It's our job to make sure the sanctity of the vote is upheld.”

“We are looking into the issue into whether people who participated in the June 3rd Democratic primary crossed over into the Republican primary this Tuesday night, and we’ve already found more than 1,000 examples of that in one county alone,” a somewhat less irate McDaniel told Sean Hannity on Fox News on Thursday. “So we’re talking about widespread irregularities of ineligible voters; they shouldn’t have been there in the first place. They were pushed there.”

In other ways, the misfortunes of the Tea Party have gone from sordid to tragic. Mark Mayfield, a leader of the Mississippi Tea Party, a McDaniel supporter, and one of three people arrested for his alleged connection to the photographing of Cochran's bedridden wife at a nursing home, committed suicide on Friday, The Clarion-Ledger reported.

It’s all beginning to get a bit dire for the Tea Party. The Southern regionalism the movement had counted on, as a geographic base from which to move from insurgency to inevitability, has fractured in ways that few expected (at least few within the movement). And the basic Tea Party principle of antipathy to authority — even the idea of a central authority within the movement itself — has revealed a philosophical vacancy that couldn’t be disguised on Tuesday.

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There was really no disguising it before then. Thom Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina House, won his Republican Senate primary on May 6 with 45.7 percent of the vote, besting everyone in a sad field of Libertarian/Tea Party challengers.

That same day, North Carolina GOP Rep. Renee Ellmers beat back a challenge by a conservative Internet talk show host Frank Roche, trouncing him by 17 points in the state’s 2nd Congressional District.

In the North Carolina 7th, Former state Sen. David Rouzer won the GOP primary with the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And in the Ohio 14th, GOP Rep. David Joyce defeated Rep. Matt Lynch, who had the support of the libertarian nonprofit FreedomWorks.

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WHAT HAPPENED in those states in May, and in Mississippi and Oklahoma on Tuesday, is sending a message, one that many in the GOP leadership either haven’t received or have decided to ignore:

Black voters, or anyone else for that matter, are no fans of institutionalized chaos, or the potential for such chaos that the Tea Party represents. In Mississippi and other states besides, voters Democratic and otherwise have cast their lot with the institutions of government and the advancement of a perfectly reasonable point of view: You don’t burn down a building because you don’t like some of the pillars holding it up.

The Tea Party movement may be a lot more bark than bite; its recent serial defeats suggest that there’s no more reason to confuse the movement’s heat with anything like light, no more reason to confuse the movement’s level of loudness with actually having something constructive to say. The Republican leadership ignores this at its peril.

Image credits: Cochran supporters: Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press. Cochran: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images. McDaniel: Associated Press. Tillis: Diedra Laird/Charlotte Observer.

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