Thad Cochran’s long and noteworthy political career has, in a sense, run full circle.
When he was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1978, he competed in what was rare at the time – a Republican primary. In that contest, a paltry 73,737 votes were cast with 50,857 of them to Cochran to capture the party nomination against former state Sen. Charles Pickering of Jones County.
On the Democratic side, a whopping 378,224 people voted in the primary where then-District Attorney Maurice Dantin of Columbia, and then-Gov. Cliff Finch advanced to the runoff. In the runoff, 361,015 people returned to the polls to select Dantin as the Democratic nominee.
Of course, we all know that in November 1978, Cochran won the election with 263,089 votes after receiving just 50,857 in the primary. This June we have seen just the opposite occur. On the Republican side, 318,902 people voted in the June 3 primary, which was at the time a record turnout for a Republican primary.
Neither state Sen. Chris McDaniel of Jones County nor Cochran garnered a majority of the votes in the primary, forcing a runoff on June 24 where in still incomplete returns 376,323 people voted, with Cochran winning 50.9 percent of the vote or an advantage of about 6,700 votes.
Meanwhile, over on the Democratic side, 85,866 people voted with former U.S. Rep. Travis Childers of Booneville advancing to the November general election.
Of course, we will have to see what occurs in November – whether Childers can dramatically increase his vote count from the primary to the general election as Cochran did in 1978. But currently, McDaniel supporters have been raising a ruckus since election night over the fact that apparently people who routinely vote in the Democratic primary participated in the runoff election and perhaps gave Cochran his margin of victory.
Some refer to illegal votes.
Let’s be clear here – if a person voted in the June 3 Democratic primary and then some way sneaked through and participated in the June 24 Republican runoff, then he or she voted illegally. And the McDaniel campaign has every right to examine the ballots for such occurrences.
But under Mississippi law, a person has no party registration and can vote in the primary of choice. Countless people vote in the Republican primary one year because they like a particular candidate and in the Democratic primary the next. Even McDaniel has done that in the past.
What occurred this election cycle is most likely nothing more than additional proof that the Republican Party is now the dominant party in the state.
For decades, in large part because of vestiges of the Civil War, nearly everyone in the state ran for office as a Democrat and nearly everyone voted in the Democratic primary.
After Democratic President Lyndon Johnson pushed through voting rights legislation in 1965, that began to change, and it is still happening on the local level.
As late as 1987, Tupelo businessman Jack Reed got an anemic 14,796 votes to capture the Republican nomination for governor. On the Democratic side that year, then-Auditor Ray Mabus garnered 473,321 in a runoff to capture the party nomination. Yet, in the general election, Reed garnered 336,276 votes, or nearly 47 percent, to come surprisingly close to becoming the state’s first Republican governor since the 1800s.
Four years later, Vicksburg engineer Kirk Fordice received 31,753 votes to win the Republican runoff while Mabus captured 368,679 to win his party’s nomination. Yet in the general election, Fordice won 361,500 votes – about 23,000 more than Mabus to make history.
No doubt, there were people who voted in the Democratic primary in those aforementioned years who voted for the Republican in November. Just like there were people who voted Republican in this year’s Senate primary who normally vote Democratic and most likely will continue to do so this November.
It has been occurring for decades – every election.
True, it is a recent occurrence where it has been Democratic-leaning voters participating in the Republican primary. But it just another indication that a vast majority of Mississippians are now Republicans.
And when one primary is receiving all the attention because of its competitiveness, it is only natural that people will want to participate in it if they are legally allowed to do so.
In Mississippi, they always have been allowed to do just that.
That’s not cheating. It’s just Mississippi politics.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau chief. Contact him at (601) 946-9931 or firstname.lastname@example.org.