Thad Cochran symbolizes the end of an era. The eighty year old Republican Senator from Mississippi has announced that he is retiring on April 1st (His term runs through 2020). Cochran is one of the last of a generation that began as Democrats in the one party Democratic South and then, in the late sixties, moved to the Republicans. When that movement was completed, the one party Democratic white South had morphed into the one party Republican white South.
Thad Cochran also represents a kind of genteel tradition among Southern Senators, who knowing they could be continuously elected, could take the time to learn the Senate’s rules and folkways and could work quietly behind the scenes to get things done for their district or state. Getting things done usually meant funneling money for projects back home. And, because they were continuously reelected they would gain committee chairmanships, as Cochran did, which allowed them to keep the money flowing (Cochran became the long time chairman of the House Agricultural Committee.). Mississippi, one of the poorest states, was able to routinely get three times more money back then it sent to Washington in taxes.
Thad Cochran, who has been in the House or the Senate for forty years (he entered the Senate in 1978), has been in very poor health. He has been away from the Senate, due to health problems during this term more than he has been in attendance. Now his long struggle to avoid retirement has finally ended. His 2014 Republican primary opponent State Senator Chris McDaniel has been waiting impatiently in the wings. McDaniel represents the more active conservatism promoted by new “Tea Party” Republicans. McDaniel, viewed by many in Mississippi as a kind of verbal bomb thrower, seems like a Ted Cruz reborn.
Therein lies a problem for Republicans and not just in Mississippi. Voting turnout in primaries, particularly off year ones, can be very low. The people who do turn out for Republican primaries are often unmoved by traditional political candidates. They want angry anti-establishment types whose goal is to weaken the federal government, to destroy its effectiveness. The problem faced by national Republicans is that those candidates, elected by a small number of angry conservatives, may win in primaries, only to be rejected in the later general elections. That is particularly true in a year when Democrats, aroused by the antics of President Trump, are going to come out and vote in historic numbers.
Back to Mississippi: Thad Cochran is leaving. White House operatives are urging Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant to appoint himself to replace Cochran. Bryant, a kind of rural populist, is happy in Jackson, and not eager to go to Washington (He also may be aware that the political future of governors who appoint themselves to national office is grim indeed.). Instead, Bryant wants to temporarily appoint Cindy Hyde-Smith, the state’s Agricultural Commissioner, who like Bryant, is popular in rural Mississippi. The problem is that in Mississippi, there has to be a special election in November to permanently replace Cochran until his term would have ended in January, 2021. That election will be run like the California primaries with the top two candidates running against each other regardless of party. The fear is that Chris McDaniel will edge out Cindy Hyde-Smith. And, then, because he will be unelectable by the larger public, will be defeated by the Democratic top vote getter, very possibly former congressman Mike Espy.
Michael Espy, who is African American, was elected to Congress from Mississippi’s 2nd District in 1988, and was reelected three times with big numbers. Then, at the beginning of his fourth term, he resigned to become Secretary of Agriculture under President Bill Clinton. Since then he has been an active figure in Mississippi politics and a prominent attorney in Jackson, Mississippi’s capitol. He does seem to have earned crossover appeal with both black and white voters.
So, we have political eras beginning and ending. Ending is an era when genteel Southern House and Senate members could comfortably plot a lifetime career in Washington D.C., knowing that they would be reelected with no or perhaps, at the most, token opposition. Thad Cochran is one of the last. We are also perhaps at or near the beginning of a period during which the Republicans are simply unable to prevent extremist conservatives from winning their primaries who then cannot win in general elections. And finally, we may be at the early beginning of an era when an increasing number of non-white candidates can be elected from the Old Confederacy. Mike Espy was the first black Congressman to be elected from Mississippi since the Civil War. He may be elected their first black Senator.
The citizens of the Magnolia State have a decision to make this November. Some may view themselves as having two unpalatable choices but choose they must. About thirty eight percent of Mississippians are African American. Many are Democrats who would gladly vote for Mike Espy. So, white Mississippi voters will make the final decision. Whatever they decide, an era is ending with the career of Thad Cochran.
Time marches on!