Above: Chris McDaniel’s supporters turned out for the 2014 Neshoba County Fair this week. Photo via AP

Chris McDaniel seems to be changing the subject. Rather than present evidence in court to back up his allegations that Thad Cochran won the Mississippi Republican Senate primary race with illegal crossover votes, McDaniel’s legal team is invoking national party rules in a telling way.

“Thad Cochran’s acceptance of the nomination requires him to accept the 30,000 to 40,000 Democrat votes he received on June 24th,” Mitch Tyner said, “Accepting the nomination under such circumstances clearly disqualifies Sen. Cochran from eligibility as the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate from the Mississippi,” he concluded.

Rule 11(b) states:
“No state Republican Party rule or state law shall be observed that allows persons who have participated or are participating in the selection of any nominee of a party other than the Republican Party, including, but not limited to, through the use of a multiparty primary or similar type ballot, to participate in the selection of a nominee of the Republican Party for that general election. No person nominated in violation of this rule shall be recognized by the Republican National Committee as the nominee of the Republican Party from that state.”

Thad Cochran lost Republican votes in the runoff and made up the difference with Democrat votes. Senator Cochran himself announced and executed his plan in complete dereliction of the rules adopted by the Republican National Committee.

In other words, when Ronald Reagan came to the Neshoba County Fair in 1980 to win over Southern Democrats, he was violating Republican Party rules. In fact, tea partiers have covered this year’s fair with protest signage in umbrage at the very thought of unclean Democrats voting for their pure, clean Republican heroes by touching a ballot with their filthy liberal hands.

The McDaniel insurrection reminds me of another election — one where this shoe was on the other foot.

1986: the end of an era

George Wallace’s name is synonymous with Southern racism and the “Dixiecrat” phenomenon, but the full story of his career is more complex. After the racially-charged 1970 gubernatorial campaign, Wallace began opening up Alabama government to minorities at a faster rate than most Northern states, or even the federal government. In 1982, he was elected with 90% of the African American vote, a testament to the power of public redemption. When he decided not to run again in 1986, the field reflected the same divide that Wallace had tried — but failed — to heal within the Democratic Party before he died.

Bill Baxley
Bill Baxley

Bill Baxley has become most famous on the internet for his “kiss my ass!” response to a threatening letter from a white supremacist. When he ran to succeed Wallace, he naturally represented the brave, new, multicolored Democratic Party — as well as the great Southern liberal tradition that had built TVA and the New South. He was the establishment favorite as well as a favorite among liberals, but they still shared the party with reactionaries who had already voted for Ronald Reagan twice.

Charlie Graddick
Charlie Graddick

Charlie Graddick is now a Republican circuit court judge, and truth be told he was always a conservative. Graddick had succeeded Baxley as state Attorney General in 1979, and rather than ‘wait his turn,’ he decided to compete with Baxley for the governor’s office by appealing to the “Reagan Democrats” who had swung the state right in national elections. The race got nastier than usual, with mud flinging from all sides. Polls showed a very close race; Graddick won by nearly 9,000 votes, but then Baxley won a reversal of that decision from the state party due to perfectly-legal crossover voting by Republicans. After the decision was upheld by a federal court, Graddick began a write-in campaign, vowing to pass out small pencils all across the state if necessary.

In the space of four weeks, disgust with both Democrats became palpable and general — and the only beneficiary was a Republican.

Guy Hunt
Guy Hunt

Guy Hunt was virtually an unknown to Alabama voters. He had already run for governor once, losing by a tremendous margin to Wallace’s hand-picked puppet Fob James (who went on to become a Republican as well), but he had never attracted much national support. As I wrote shortly after Hunt’s death in 2009,

in today’s terminology, Hunt was a paleo-Republican — an anti-science, Bible-thumping member of the Council of Conservative Citizens. (Get it? CCC=KKK). He also had a history of self-dealing: Reagan had appointed him to a seat on a Department of Agriculture agency, and by 1985 he had been forced to resign or face prosecution for mismanagement of funds. Indeed, his presence would never have been tolerated on a dominant-party ticket, but none of this made a dent in his sudden popularity. Alabama knew nothing about him, and didn’t really want to know.

His coalition was substantial, and he led it with crafted charisma. As a traveling Primitive Baptist preacher, Hunt appealed to the evangelical movement. As a member of the CCC, he appealed to white racists. As a Reaganite, he appealed to Reagan Democrats. A hobby farmer, Hunt had the aw-shucks demeanor of a good-old-boy grafted onto the slick salesmanship of an Amway salesman, which he was.

Hunt was the first Republican governor of Alabama since Reconstruction. He was also part of a wave of Republican governors that year. The transition would not be complete until 2010, but Alabama was now switching from a one-party Democratic state to a one-party Republican state.

The Dixiecrats are revolting (but what else is new?)

The tea partiers resisting Thad Cochran in Philadelphia, Mississippi are the latter-day manifestation of Dixiecrats — separatists within a majority political party who want to purify it from moderating influences. In Alabama, this demographic broke with the Democratic Party in a very visible way in 1986, never to return. No analogy is perfect, but the difference this time around is that Mississippi’s grassroots conservatives are the ones who want to overturn the will of the voters as illegitimate.

McDaniel will probably never file a lawsuit, and if he does it will certainly fail. I doubt he will prevail upon the Republican Party to disregard Cochran’s win and repeat the Democratic Party’s mistake. But the pictures coming out of Neshoba County don’t show rational people calculating the odds of accidentally putting Democrat Travis Childers in the US Senate; they show people demanding to have a political party exclusive to themselves.