, Salem, MA


June 21, 2014

Shribman: The morphing of Mississippi

Do not for a minute think that Tuesday’s Senate runoff in Mississippi is about Thad Cochran.

Cochran, an innocuous man who sits at the desk once occupied by Jefferson Davis, has been on Capitol Hill for 41 years, and the most remarkable thing about him is that a Mississippi Republican has been in the Senate for six terms. A half-century ago, Republicans were rarely sighted in Mississippi, and 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 Cochran to the Senate — if he wins the Republican nomination, he’s 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 Cochran after neither man won a majority in the primary, are trying to make an issue of what the longtime senator represents: longevity, the status quo, insider maneuvers, the art of the deal, politics as usual, pork-barrel favors, mushy conservatism. Those are legitimate issues, but our topic this morning is not what Cochran represents, but the phenomenon of Cochran representing Mississippi in the first place.

Back in the days when Barry Goldwater was the leading conservative — he actually was known as Mr. Conservative — Mississippi was a one-party state, like the Soviet Union, only different. There were a handful of Republicans, but so few you almost knew all their names, principally Wirt Adams Yerger Jr., who founded the Magnolia State’s GOP affiliate at the late date of 1956, and Clarke Reed, the highest-profile Mississippi Republican operative of his time who, along with only 112,965 other lonely Mississippi souls, voted for Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. The man who was perhaps the greatest war hero in American history won less than 40 percent of the vote in a military-oriented state only seven years after V-E Day.

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