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JACKSON, Miss. —

For the first time since President Nixon’s divisive “Southern strategy” sent whites to the Republican Party and blacks to the Democratic Party, African-American voters have come out in force for a Republican in the Deep South.

Now they are hoping to flex political muscles long atrophied after supporting Sen. Thad Cochran on Tuesday in his runoff victory against a tea-party challenger.

“We’re in a moment here,” said Floyd Smith, an African American and a longtime political worker who canvassed Jackson’s black precincts for Cochran. “Black folks went out and voted for a Republican. That’s history.”

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The Mississippi voters who handed Cochran his narrow victory over state Sen. Chris McDaniel were a complex and historic amalgam of black Democrats, rural and suburban white Republicans and union members, some put off by McDaniel’s rhetorical broadsides and austere promises.

Although Cochran campaign officials and longtime Democratic officials said white Republican voters probably made the biggest difference in Cochran’s victory, blacks turned out in record numbers for a Mississippi Republican primary.

They were driven in part by Cochran’s organization and outreach, but also by a sense, they said, that McDaniel had been overly vicious in his attacks on President Obama and incendiary in the racial undertones of his pitch to white voters that “It’s time to defend our way of life again.”

Black voters said that with the long odds for any Democrat in a statewide election in Mississippi, both Cochran and McDaniel would most likely beat the Democratic candidate, former Rep. Travis Childers, in November.

Given that choice, they said they preferred Cochran. “People saw the tea party as the bigger threat,” said Carl Brown, 44, a black pastor. “They’re on the news saying, ‘We want to go back to the good old days.’ Good old days for who?”

Praise and outrage

The Cochran campaign’s effort to get black votes attracted attention nationwide: praise in some circles, outrage in others. Rush Limbaugh on Tuesday upbraided “black Uncle Tom voters” who turned out for Cochran.

McDaniel, at his “victory rally,” refused to concede and vowed to fight on against “irregularities” and the “liberal Democrats” who decided the contest, although he said late Wednesday he had not decided on a court challenge. Mississippi election law does not provide for recounts.

In a statement, McDaniel said: “In the coming days, our team will look into the irregularities to determine whether a challenge is warranted. After we’ve examined the data, we will make a decision about whether and how to (proceed).”

Cochran allies said the cross-party outreach was historic, significant and, they hoped, a sign of things to come. “African Americans spoke loud and clear, that they are engaged, that they want good government and that they are paying attention to those of us in government,” said state Sen. Willie Simmons, a black Democrat who supported Cochran. “The message is we should be cognizant of their vote, regardless of our party.”

Mayor George Flaggs Jr., of Vicksburg, an African American who supported Cochran, said the moment must not be allowed to slip away. “For blacks, it is imperative that we look at the process and try to maximize our efforts by utilizing our voting power as best we can,” he said.

Returns showed that Cochran beat McDaniel by about 6,700 votes of 376,000 votes cast Tuesday. Nearly 63,000 more voters went to the polls than on June 3, and both candidates raised their totals. Cochran just raised his more.

In Mississippi’s 25 majority-black counties, Cochran increased his totals by at least 13,000 votes. In Hinds County alone, which is home to Jackson and 70 percent black, he got at least 6,400 more votes than before.

In the predominantly black Delta town of Cleveland, African-American leaders texted, carpooled and telephoned on Cochran’s behalf, hoping to prove their ballot clout — but not necessarily loyalty to the candidate, they said. The town and surrounding Bolivar County gave 72 percent of the vote to Cochran, up from 68 percent June 3. Turnout Tuesday in the county increased sharply in black precincts.

“It should send a message, ‘Hey, don’t count us out; we have the largest black vote in the U.S.,’ ” said Ned Tolliver, 71, a retired school principal in Cleveland.

Wake-up call

That said, even in majority-black districts in the Delta, many — if not most — of the increase may well have been white Republicans, a possibility reinforced by a study of preliminary precinct returns in Yazoo County.

Hayes Dent, a Cochran organizer in charge of vote-wrangling in the Delta, said many traditional Republican voters assumed Cochran, a six-term incumbent, would win his primary. They needed a wake-up call, and they got one June 3, when McDaniel narrowly edged out Cochran, but was forced into a runoff by a minor candidate.

“Were there people who didn’t traditionally turn out for Republican primaries? Yes, I’m sure there were,” Dent said. “But I can tell you in the 17 counties that I managed, that’s not what did the deal.”

In fact, he said, the media attention about Cochran’s black-voter outreach “without a doubt” energized McDaniel voters to turn out in stronger numbers Tuesday, possibly nullifying the additional black votes.

Cochran campaign officials said white catfish farmers, cotton growers and other traditionally reliable Republicans in the Delta who sat out the initial primary were dragged to the polls by Cochran’s revitalized ground game and were constantly reminded of the senator’s efforts on their behalf. At the same time, union workers at the Gulf Coast’s giant Ingalls Shipyard grew alarmed at McDaniel’s calls for deep federal spending cuts.

“It was just a scary situation to know that some of the things that he stood up and said he would do would take away the jobs here at the shipyard,” said Michael Crawley, 68, president of the Pascagoula Metal Trades Council and a die-hard Democrat.

For Democrats, in Washington, D.C., and in Mississippi, who believed they could beat McDaniel in a general election, the crossover votes for Cochran were a major disappointment. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was preparing a major push for Childers, a conservative former House member. “I certainly hated to see many members of our party cross over yesterday in a primary that quite frankly I felt like we had no business in,” Childers said.

Material from the Tribune Washington Bureau is included in this report.

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