Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) unexpectedly won his runoff against Tea Party-backed Chris McDaniel Tuesday night, a win largely credited to African Americans who turned out to vote. The Tea Party, right-wing commentators, and even McDaniel himself are crying foul. “There is something a bit strange, there is something a bit unusual about a Republican primary that’s decided by liberal Democrats,” McDaniel said in his non-concession speech Tuesday night.
But the Republican establishment may have finally absorbed a crucial lesson from Cochran’s race: minority outreach works.
With over 347,000 votes, Tuesday’s runoff was the first in 30 years where turnout actually increased from the primary election. Most of that jump in voting was concentrated in predominantly black counties. According to The Upshot, turnout increased by 43 percent in counties where voting rolls are 65 percent black, and rose a whopping 92 percent in Jefferson County, which is 85 percent black.
Cochran’s strategy to court traditionally Democratic black voters was a complete 180 from the voter suppression strategy his party has spearheaded over the past few years. Cochran supports voter ID laws and pushed a bill to mandate proof of citizenship for voter registration, even though these requirements mainly serve to discourage voting by non-white communities. Mississippi Republicans in particular have been working hard to disenfranchise certain voters. The legislature approved a voter ID law in 2012 that made it literally impossible for some residents to get the necessary photo ID to vote. According to the Brennan Center, the law was especially hard on residents in 13 predominantly black counties without any full time drivers license office when the law was passed in 2012. The law was still waiting for approval by the Justice Department when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act last year (a decision Cochran hailed as evidence of progress made in Jim Crow states). With federal oversight removed, Mississippi charged ahead with implementing the requirements.
Republicans have paid lip service to the importance of reaching minorities and women, but efforts to make the party more inclusive have been undermined by an outpouring of racist rhetoric and policies that seem to target low-income urban communities. But as the nation becomes less white, these botched outreach efforts will become more and more politically costly. Non-white voters have already gained plurality in several states and are on track to make up 30 percent of the electorate by 2016 — and so far, their negative views of Republicans have hardly budged.
Mississippi is a case study in how indispensable non-white voters are. Black voters made up over a third of the state’s electorate in 2012, a higher share than in any other state. As a recent Center for American Progress report explains, what happened in Mississippi could easily be repeated across the South, where millions of unregistered black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans could change the political math of the region if mobilized to vote.