Inside an abandoned grocery store-turned-church here, a dozen black pastors gathered to discuss a seemingly impossible task: persuading their congregations to vote Republican next week.
“In tough times, you’ve got to do some unusual things,” said Bishop Ronnie C. Crudup Sr., a pastor of the New Horizon Church International in Jackson.
Unusual is an understatement. Mississippi, with its painful history of Jim Crow laws, may have the most racially polarized electorate in the country. Blacks make up a higher percentage of the electorate here than in any other state - 36 percent in 2012, according to exit polls. But they are so overwhelmingly Democratic that they remain nearly invisible in Republican politics, with just 2 percent participating in the Republican primary in 2012.
Now, with Thad Cochran, the state’s senior Republican senator, fighting political extinction in next Tuesday’s primary, his campaign is taking the unlikely step of trying to entice black voters to help decide the most high-profile Republican contest in the country.
“You’ve got to be willing to cross the line sometimes, and go over to some strange places for our interests,” Crudup said.
It is a risky strategy, and one that the Cochran campaign is sensitive about, given the conservative tilt of the Republican electorate here. But it may be the only path to victory left for Cochran, 76, whose four-decade career in Congress is imperiled by a Tea Party-backed challenger, Chris McDaniel.
After being narrowly edged out by McDaniel, 41, in the Republican primary this month, Cochran needs to expand the number of voters who will show up for the Republican runoff election, which is open to Mississippi residents of any party who did not vote in the Democratic primary.
The winner on Tuesday will face former Rep. Travis Childers, a conservative Democrat, in November.
“We’ve got efforts reaching out to black voters in Mississippi who want to vote for Thad because they like what Thad is for,” said Austin Barbour, a Cochran campaign adviser. “Thad Cochran is someone who, even with his conservative message, represents all of Mississippi. He’s not some hostile screamer.”
Cochran had been a friend to Mississippi’s blacks during his six terms, Crudup said, and deserved African American support in this difficult race. But the more powerful reason for blacks to turn out for Cochran may be his opponent, McDaniel. As a talk-show host, he has made racially tinged comments, suggesting he would not pay taxes if it meant supporting reparations for slavery, and using speech that some believe harks back to an earlier segregationist era.
McDaniel and his supporters portray Cochran’s effort as an act of desperation, but they are careful to criticize the senator for reaching out to “Democrats” rather than blacks. “The idea that he would have to reach out to liberal Democrats in an effort to save his candidacy just shows how far to the left he’s gone over the past 42 years,” said McDaniel, who has run an anti-Washington campaign fueled by Tea Party support.
When it was pointed out that the question was about African American voters, he replied: “It has nothing to do with that - this is about liberal Democrats.”
The outreach campaign is taking many forms. The “super PAC” supporting Cochran, Mississippi Conservatives, is paying African American leaders, including Crudup, to help lift black turnout on Tuesday, said Pete Perry, a Republican strategist here who is working for the group.
“We’re working with a whole bunch of different folks, and Crudup is one of them,” said Perry, who declined to say exactly how much Mississippi Conservatives was paying to increase black turnout. But when asked whether it was in the five-figure range, he said “sure.”
Another group, All Citizens for Mississippi, paid for advertisements in two black-oriented Jackson newspapers highlighting Cochran’s work for African Americans. The group lists Crudup’s church as its address.
Cochran’s campaign said that while the senator was appealing to African-American voters, among other groups, the campaign itself was not paying black leaders for get out the vote efforts. Cochran’s television commercials are not subtle about their intentions: Video clips of African-Americans interacting with the longtime senator blanket the airwaves.
Some longtime political observers see the Cochran effort as quixotic, given the state’s historical voting trends, but there is evidence, at least anecdotally, of growing interest in the race among African-Americans.
Talamieka Brice, 33, a small-business owner in Ridgeland, Mississippi, was one of the few blacks in a crowd that turned out for a recent Cochran event in Jackson. She said she planned to vote for Cochran in Tuesday’s runoff - in part because McDaniel’s focus on “Mississippi values” worried her.
“Traditionally, things that have been associated with Mississippi values and what the state stands for are things that are not good for minorities,” she said. “That scares me.”
In Georgetown, a large black community in Jackson, Matthew Ratliff, 49, a UPS worker and Democrat said Friday that he, too, intended to back Cochran.
“I know some of the things Thad has done for his community,” Ratliff said.
State Sen. Willie Simmons, a black Democrat who represents a district in the Mississippi River Delta, is supporting the senator’s re-election, in part because Cochran has used his status as a senior member of the Appropriations Committee to provide federal money for health centers, historically black colleges and a new bridge across the river in the impoverished region.
“He did not have to ask me, I told him I was supporting him,” he said of the senator.
But the challenges of the strategy are obvious, too. While Cochran has received some African-American support in previous re-election bids, those ballots have been cast in the privacy of a general election voting booth. Walking into a polling place for a Republican primary is a different thing.
“Whether they can cross over from a traditional Democratic habit to vote one time for a Republican, I just don’t know,” said former Rep. Mike Espy, a Democrat who in 1986 was the first African-American elected to Congress from Mississippi since Reconstruction.
And some black Democrats, like Robin Gordon of Indianola, have already voted in their own party’s primary this month, making them ineligible to participate on Tuesday. “I just wouldn’t want to see someone like McDaniel go to Washington,” Gordon said.
Longtime participants in Mississippi politics still seem a little bewildered by the idea that blacks could play a pivotal role in a Republican election in a state where the two political parties are divided by race.
“If someone had told me that it would, I’d tell them they were on something,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi’s sole black member of Congress, who has served in elected office for 45 years.
Thompson, 66, whose district stretches from black neighborhoods here in the capital to the Delta in the west, noted that he is a Democrat and does not participate in Republican politics. But he made clear that he was not discouraging his supporters from backing the senator, saying that he feared the loss of clout if McDaniel were to prevail.
“Our state relies very heavily on the understanding that support from Washington is essential,” Thompson said. “For a person to run counter to that support is a threat to where we are now as a state. We can’t tax our people enough to make up for the difference. That’s what’s scaring people like me.”