The June 3 election where state Sen. Chris McDaniel of Ellisville is challenging incumbent U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran most likely will produce the largest Republican Party primary turnout in the state’s history.
In the 2012 Republican Party primary for president, 294,100 people voted in the election won by Mitt Romney. People voting in the Republican primary that year far outpaced those voting the same day in the Democratic primary, though that is no surprise since Barack Obama was unopposed in his bid for re-election and there was no significant statewide race on the Dems’ side.
But 2012 is thus far the exception.
Republicans have made large strides in the state in recent years. Mississippi is viewed as one of the most dependable red states, but in party primary elections more people generally still turn out to vote for Democrats than Republicans. This trend should change as more local politicians run as Republican, leaving the traditional Democratic camp. Thus far, though, it has not.
Even in the 2011 statewide elections, more people (by about 33,500) voted for governor on the Democratic side where two little-known and relatively unfunded candidates battled than on the Republican side that featured well-known and well-funded Phil Bryant, who was the eventual winner in the November general election.
In that 2011 Republican gubernatorial primary, 289,788 people voted.
In the 2008 presidential party primaries,145,485 turned out on the Republican side compared to 423,113 on the Democratic side where Hillary Clinton and Obama were vying. Later that year in Mississippi in the general election, though, Republican John McCain thrashed the future president.
The point being, a vast majority of Mississippians are prone to vote Republican when they look at the Democratic and Republican candidates side-by-side and look at where each stands on the issues and the beliefs of both. But, as of yet, it has not been proven that a vast majority of Mississippians are prone to vote Republican just for the sake of voting.
The McDaniel/Cochran campaign has the potential to attract many newcomers to the Republican Party primary. The race, it appears by the number of television commercials already being aired and the animosity already being displayed by both campaigns, will be hotly contested. And there is no party primary on the Democratic side of any significance. Cochran, of course, is the sixth-term incumbent and deeply entrenched as part of the state Republican Party organization. McDaniel is the upstart, the Tea Party favorite. Now, in many instances, Tea Party members have been long-time, entrenched Republicans. But in other instances, Tea Party members, although socially and fiscally conservative, have never identified with the Republican Party, other than to vote for the Republican candidate with whom they felt most closely aligned. Many of these people have become politically active for the first time thanks to the Tea Party, though they have been long-time Republican voters.
The McDaniel-Cochran race is quickly morphing into a contest between those Tea Party members and the state’s Republican Party establishment, or GOP old guard. After all, the Barbours, as Republican establishment as can be found, are running an independent group touting Cochran and speaking rather despairingly of McDaniel and of groups supporting him.
Haley Barbour called the national Tea Party-affiliated groups supporting McDaniel “out-of-state phonies.” The former governor – the most prolific political fundraiser in the state’s history – was never averse to out-of-state support when he was campaigning.
Many others associated with the state’s Republican Party establishment also have gone after McDaniel and his supporters with a particular zeal. The establishment Republicans have depended on the Tea Party-like voters – many of whom are supporting McDaniel – to turn Mississippi into one of the most dependable red states. They will continue to need that support whether McDaniel wins or loses.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau chief. Contact him at (601) 353-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.