On Thad Cochran’s fourth birthday Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese, sending the US into World War II. Like most Mississippians of that era, Cochran grew up a Democrat. In those days the south produced very conservative Democrats who eschewed the Republican party because it was the party of Abraham Lincoln. Cochran was a success at almost everything he undertook: he was an Eagle Scout, majored in Psychology (minored in Poli-Sci), served a stint in the Navy and ultimately graduated from the University of Mississippi Law School.
In the sixties the country was changing and Cochran recognized that the Republican party was increasingly reflecting the view of southern conservatives. He became one of the early converts to the GOP, winning a seat in the House of Representatives in 1972 in a close race.
After three terms in Congress Cochran successfully ran for the Senate, replacing retiring Democrat James Eastland. That made Cochran one of the first of the new breed of southern Republicans to get elected. Given the Democrats’ choice of George McGovern to run in 1972, the next decade would see a massive shift to the Republican party in the south.
Southern Democrats were in something of a civil war then. The establishment Democratic candidate opposing Cochran was Maurice Dantin. He was supported by Eastland and part of the good old boy southern Democratic tradition. Yet the Democrats were also now the party of the civil rights movement, and Charles Evers, a black liberal, ran as an independent. This split the Democratic vote and allowed Cochran to win with a plurality.
Time once labeled Cochran one of the most effective Senators. Always a behind the scenes “persuader,” he brought pork to Mississippi (he was a master of the earmark) and earned a strong 88% rating from the American Conservative Union. He developed considerable influence in both Mississippi and the Senate, and was generally well liked. In 1990 he ran unopposed, and after his narrow first win his margins were: 61-39, 100-0, 71-27, 85-13, and 61-39. He was never given a serious challenge in a state Republican primary.
Now as the GOP is engulfed in its own civil war, Cochran faced a surprisingly serious challenge from Tea Party backed State Senator Chris McDaniel. In the state primary, a candidate must win a majority to gain the nomination. In the first round, McDaniel won a plurality, defeating Cochran 49.57 – 48.88. That is enticingly close to a majority, but 50% + 1 vote is needed for a majority. In the second round, Cochran prevailed 50.9% to 49.1%.
This result was not expected. Most polls showed McDaniel comfortably ahead by 5 or 6%, with national groups questioning giving continued support to Cochran. McDaniel went into the day the favorite, and came out defeated. He is supposedly considering legal action against Cochran because Cochran’s team reached out to black voters and Democrats. In their mind a true conservative Republican was defeated because an old establishment Republican got support from black voters. It appears they are right – the numbers indicate that black voters probably did give Cochran his margin of victory. They may not have been Republican, but they didn’t like McDaniel’s views.
So what does Cochran’s victory mean? Well, coming so soon after Eric Cantor’s loss, it shows that the establishment is not dead, and the tea party has less influence on the Republican party than any time since its 2009 inception. There is a sense of desperation within the movement that their ideals are under threat from their own party leadership.
Cochran’s victory means that the GOP “civil war” is about to enter it’s final stage. The tea party/far right sees politics as good vs. evil. They do not want compromise and pragmatic governance, they are driven by ideology and many of them want a kind of political holy war – defeat the liberals completely and bring America back to their image of what should be/once was. That image is more nostalgic fantasy than reality, but they are convinced they are the only ones with the proper conception of what America should be.
When they thought they could dominate their party and defeat the Democrats, their disdain for RINOs (Republicans in name only) meant primary challenges and, more often than not, electoral defeat at the hands of the Democrats. This led the establishment to fight back – they can tolerate the extremists, but they can’t tolerate continual electoral defeat – and now the tea party realizes that they are a minority in their own party, and Eric Cantor notwithstanding, losing clout.
The last act of this civil war will be the tea party going all out to fight against the GOP leadership. It will either lead to a bitter primary season in 2016 as the Tea Party goes for the big prize – the Presidential nomination. Or if truly cut out, more radical elements will likely try a third party, convinced they are the future of the conservative movement – that the Grand Old Party is obsolete. Either way, the Tea Party will lose, and the Republican establishment will reassert control.
Ironically, this would be a Republican version of what helped bring Thad Cochran to Congress in 1972. The Democrats had been engaged in their own civil war thanks to the anti-war and civil rights movements. The 1968 Chicago convention started a fight that ended after a tortured 1972 Democratic Convention rejected party moderates and nominated the fiercely anti-war liberal George McGovern. This created widespread dissent within the party and the Democrats had one of their worst Presidential elections in history.
The good news for the Republicans is that if history is a guide, the election isn’t a direct threat to their holdings in the House and Senate. The House Democrats did lose 13 seats in 1972, but kept their majority. Senate Democrats actually gained two seats. People did not automatically take dissent with the Presidential candidate as a reason to distrust their own representative.
Thad Cochran’s career will thus bookend the two biggest internal civil wars the major US parties had in the post-war era: The Democrats in the late sixties and early seventies, followed by the Republicans since 2010. And he represents the side that wins those civil wars – the party establishment.