Do not for a minute think that this week’s Senate runoff in Mississippi is about Thad Cochran.
Mr. Cochran, an innocuous man who sits at the desk once occupied by Jefferson Davis, has been on Capitol Hill for 41 years. The most remarkable thing about him is that a Mississippi Republican has been in the Senate for six terms.
Fifty years ago, Republicans rarely were sighted in Mississippi. The state was convulsed in bitter racial turmoil that was a searing embarrassment to a nation that blithely used the idiom of “freedom” to fight communism outside its borders.
This week, voters in Mississippi will decide whether to return Mr. Cochran to the Senate — if he wins the Republican nomination, he will be a good bet in the general election in November — or to make him another incumbent toppled, as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of suburban Richmond was earlier this month, by a Tea Party insurgency.
The supporters of state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who earned a runoff with Mr. Cochran after neither man won a majority in the primary, are trying to make an issue of what the longtime senator represents: insider maneuvers, the art of the deal, politics as usual, pork-barrel favors, and mushy conservatism.
Those are legitimate issues, but the topic here is not what Mr. Cochran represents, but the phenomenon of Mr. Cochran representing Mississippi in the first place.
Back in the days when Arizona’s Barry Goldwater was the leading conservative, Mississippi was a one-party state. A half-century ago, James Eastland and John Stennis, regarded as populist folk heroes but in fact ardent early opponents of integration, occupied the state’s two Senate seats. Both were Democrats of the old school, and eventually both were committee chairmen.
A generation ago, the split was between those holding firm to the Democratic creed (a diminishing group) and those moving to a Republican Party with a candidate (Mr. Goldwater, 1964) whose principal appeal was that he wasn’t Lyndon Johnson, the Texas apostate who embraced civil rights.
The split is materially different, and exists in several dimensions. One is the division between the GOP old guard in the state — the very phrase would have seemed ludicrous 50 years ago — and the new, muscular conservatives aligned with the Tea Party movement.
Another is the division between newcomers and old-timers, as Mississippi, like other Southern states, becomes transformed by outsiders who don’t comprehend that the Republican officeholders there once were rebels against a political establishment that seemed impregnable.
The key to understanding the Mississippi showdown is recognizing that the movement from Democratic Mississippi to Republican Mississippi was a movement to preserve the status quo. The new Republicans offered a world view in important ways congruent with that of the old Democrats. But it was completely divergent from that offered by the new Democrats, who included tens of thousands of blacks, the largest percentage of any state’s population, eligible to cast ballots because of President Johnson’s Voting Rights Act.
So this week’s primary isn’t about Mr. Cochran. It’s about Mississippi and about the GOP and about change. It’s the most interesting political race in the most interesting region of the most interesting political democracy.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org