WASHINGTON (AP) — Black Mississippians who may usually vote Democratic are trying to swing a primary victory toward six-term incumbent Republican Sen. Thad Cochran by casting ballots in their state's GOP primary.
Their support in Tuesday's election couldn't get Cochran out of a June 24 runoff with tea party-backed state Sen. Chris McDaniel. But without it, Cochran may not have garnered enough votes to survive to a runoff for a seat Republicans are favored to win.
No one knows exactly how many black Democrats or independents crossed party lines to vote in the Republican primary. Mississippi's primary system is open, meaning voters of any party could participate. But it was clear that some did for various reasons.
Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs, a black Democrat who served 26 years in the state House of Representatives before winning the city office in 2013, said Tuesday he voted for Cochran because "Thad's been good for Mississippi," and helped to bring a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' research station to his city.
"I'm one of those persons who always puts the best person ahead of politics," Flaggs said.
The likelihood of a Republican victory in the general election — the last Democratic Mississippi senator was John Stennis who retired in 1989 — means that black voters would have more influence by voting in the GOP primary, said D'Andra Orey, a political science professor at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi.
"With the extremity, if you will, of the tea party, many blacks would rather see Thad Cochran in office than they would McDaniel so I could very well see African-Americans getting out to vote the Republican ticket this time," he said.
However, the fact that some black Democrats would prefer Cochran also could hurt him.
"We're in a state that is so racially polarized that any candidate that sort of appeals to African-Americans will be perceived as more liberal because of some of the issues linked to African Americans," Orey said.
African-American voters can be key in races in the Deep South, and especially in Mississippi, which has the highest percentage of blacks in the nation at 38 percent, according to the Census Bureau. And in the 2012 elections, blacks voted nationally at a higher rate than whites in the presidential elections.
In the primary elections Tuesday, turnout was up 7 percent in Mississippi's majority-black counties vs. 5 percent in other counties.
Not only did some Democratic and independent black voters turn out for Cochran, some even tried to bring more black voters out to the primary, to have a say in who they think the next Mississippi senator will be.
A new black group, "All Citizens For Mississippi," spent $2,000 for pro-Cochran advertisements in two newspapers, the Jackson Advocate and the Mississippi Link, and passed out pro-Cochran flyers aimed at black voters.
The group's leader, Bishop Ronnie C. Crudup of New Horizon Church in Jackson, said the politically-unaffiliated group felt Cochran would be better for their interests than McDaniel, and would be willing to continue to support Cochran in a runoff.
"We recognized that Mississippi is a red state and more than likely will have a Republican senator, and therefore this decision, which is going to affect every citizen in Mississippi, is going to be made in the Republican primary," Crudup said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We therefore determined that we couldn't sit on the sideline, but that we had to take some actions that spoke to our community about our self-interest when it comes to this race."
While he and other members of the group — made up of black business owners and others from all around Mississippi — were helping Cochran, Crudup said some have already decided to vote Democratic in the general election. Crudup said he voted for Cochran in the primary.
But given that a Republican would likely win, with Cochran "we're better served than if Mr. McDaniel with his philosophy, the tea party's philosophy, gets elected," Crudup said.
AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta and Associated Press writer Emily Wagster Pettus from Jackson, Mississippi, contributed to this report.
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