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July 06, 2014 9:47 AM Running Ethically in Mississippi

By Martin Longman

Travis Childers, who served as a Democrat in Congress from May 13, 2008 to January 3, 2011, was never my kind of Democrat, but I am okay with that. I would not expect great things from him if he were to win a six-year term in the U.S. Senate representing the state of Mississippi. On most contentious issues, I’d expect him to vote with the Republicans in a (probably) vain effort to save his hide in his bid for reelection.

What interests me about this race is the ethics. It’s pretty clear that the Republican Party is badly split between supporters of incumbent Thad Cochran, who is a decent fellow, and his challenger state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who runs in neo-confederate circles and has the support of an extreme Tea Party faction. This wedge pre-exists anything Childers might do to exploit it. If Childers can convince a significant percentage of McDaniel supporters to vote for him, he can actually win this seat, but it is not clear how he can go about doing that without leveraging the racism that is at the core of opposition to Cochran.

Cochran was expected to lose his run-off with McDaniel but exceeded expectations by convincing a not inconsiderable number of black voters to back him. The Tea Party faction is claiming that a lot of these black voters violated the law by voting in the Republican run-off after voting in the Democratic primary. That issue can be settled in court, but regardless of legal merits, Cochran’s open solicitation of black votes is seen as dirty pool by McDaniel’s supporters who think that a Republican primary should be decided by exclusively Republican voters regardless of what the law specifies.

Travis Childers has the option of exacerbating this racial tension for his own political advantage, but this would be the wrong thing to do. Yet, if he doesn’t do it, he will almost certainly lose. In fact, even if he does do it, he will probably lose.

Democrats in Washington are watching the feud cautiously, not yet convinced it will put even Mississippi in play. The Democratic nominee, Mr. Childers, has raised little money and was always seen as a good candidate against Mr. McDaniel but as a marginal one against Mr. Cochran.
Conservative activists are not so sure. Dwayne Hall, vice president of the Miller County Patriots, a Tea Party group in Texarkana, Ark., says he has set up a Google alert for the McDaniel-Cochran fight and emails his network of fellow activists all the news from Mississippi.
“I’m no longer a member of the Republican Party, and I’d expect a lot of my fellow patriots to resign, too,” he said, adding: “I’m perfectly willing to do a protest vote in November if that’s my best option. I’m keeping that option open.”

So, how can Childers convince people like Dwayne Hall to advocate on his behalf without dirtying himself with the racial politics of it all? Childers needs to nurture that “protest vote,” but he doesn’t want to shame himself in the process. So far, he’s walking the tightrope.

The turmoil has given Mr. Cochran’s Democratic challenger, former Representative Travis Childers, an opening to exploit the divide in what is otherwise seen as a race in which he trails badly. “Senator Cochran does not have the confidence of his state, let alone his own party,” Mr. Childers said.

It won’t be easy to maintain that kind of balance with so much at stake. I hope Childers will be able to look back at his campaign and be proud of how he ran it regardless of the outcome.

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