Election Season Defies Conventional Storylines
Crumple up that first draft. Hit delete on the keyboard. The take most of us had on Tuesday's primaries just one day ago turned out to be just one more misread in the primaries of 2014.
That story about the passing of the Old Guard? Or the one about the resurgence of the Tea Party? Not so fast, the voters still seem to be saying.
The first shock came in Mississippi, where six-term U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran had been outpaced by an upstart state legislator, Chris McDaniel, in the June 3 Republican primary. Cochran was the courtly old Southern gent, the onetime Democrat turned Republican who had always been a conservative but also believed in compromise.
Cochran had been on the verge of retirement before deciding to seek a seventh six-year term, and he was stunned in the June 3 primary by McDaniel, who had the backing of big Tea Party stars such as Sarah Palin of Alaska.
But Cochran stormed from 8 points back in the latest polls to win the GOP nod with 51 percent to McDaniel's 49 percent. Apparently the conservatism of the Old South had not yet given way to the conservatism of the new.
In an interesting parallel, another veteran of four decades in Congress, Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, also defied predictions of his demise in New York City. Rangel, at 84, was asking for one more two-year term. But his age, his ethics baggage and the changing demographics of his district were said to have finally caught up with him.
The commonality between these two aging champions — the white gentleman from Mississippi and the black street pol from Harlem — was that both seemed to have saved themselves from retirement by appealing to African-American voters.
That's hardly a surprise for Rangel, who represents what has been the nation's iconic black district. Rangel rallied his troops in the waning days of the campaign and prevailed, even though the district, redrawn in 2010 to include much of the Bronx, is now majority Hispanic.
Rangel's primary rival, Adriano Espaillat, played up his Dominican roots and carried the neighborhoods where Spanish is spoken. But Rangel held a slim lead on primary night and the Associated Press declared him the winner Wednesday afternoon.
What really stunned the scribes, though, was Cochran's comeback. He did it by mobilizing black voters in Hinds County (Jackson) and in several counties in the Delta, where turnout spiked on Tuesday. So many more people showed up at the polling places targeted by Cochran that it drove the statewide vote total above the June 3 figure — an almost unprecedented occurrence.
The Cochran pitch was simple: I may be a Republican, but I'm the kind who'll help you. Cochran has been responsive to many requests from Mississippians of all races — bringing enormous sums of money home as chairman of the Appropriations Committee. Best known for his work after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Cochran has been a faithful provider of federal largesse throughout his decades in office.
McDaniel had been explicit in attacking this aspect of the incumbent's career, even with respect to storm aid. And on Tuesday night he ripped Cochran for currying favor with "liberal Democrats" and "for once again compromising, for once again reaching across the aisle, for once again abandoning the conservative movement."
In Oklahoma, another beneficiary of the star power support of Palin and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was senatorial aspirant T.W. Shannon, the state's first African-American House speaker. But while Shannon had the national luminaries of the movement in his corner, local groups associated with the Tea Party's populist philosophy were backing another candidate, Rep. James Lankford. Attempts to score this outcome as a loss for the Tea Party were complicated by that local division, as well as by Lankford's own conservative credentials.
Lankford has been chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the home of the hard-core ideological right in the House. Before going to Washington, he had run an evangelical Christian camp for children, so his appeal to religious conservatives could compete with Shannon's as well.
Polls had shown the race to be close, with a runoff widely anticipated. But in the end, Lankford won easily with nearly three-fifths of the vote. That prompted some to wonder if Shannon's race had played a role in this outcome as well. Oklahoma's population is only 7 percent African-American, and most of those voters do not take part in Republican primaries.
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