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Can Travis Childers Win in Mississippi?

Can Travis Childers Win in Mississippi?

By Sean Trende - June 4, 2014

Although there is still a runoff to be had, most analysts like state Sen. Chris McDaniel's odds for defeating six-term Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi in a few weeks. McDaniel very nearly cleared the 50 percent mark in the first round of balloting Tuesday, and one suspects that his supporters are more enthusiastic and likely to turn out for the runoff.

Democrats have a quality candidate in former Rep. Travis Childers. Childers represented the conservative northeastern portion of the state for a little more than two years in Congress, winning a special election and a general election in 2008 by reasonably solid margins. This has given Democrats some hope that they can claim the seat that Cochran wrested away from the Democrats in 1978 (a victory that Steve Kornacki notes was seen as an unlikely event at that time).

To evaluate this claim, we might compare Mississippi to a race where Democrats managed to pull off a victory in the wake of a Tea Party upset of a longtime Republican incumbent: the 2012 Indiana Senate race. There are four questions that need to be asked here:

1) Is Travis Childers analogous to Joe Donnelly? The first question that needs to be tested is whether the hype surrounding Childers is warranted.  I think the answer is yes, albeit with some caveats. Donnelly represented north-central Indiana, including South Bend. He was something of a blue-collar, New Deal Democrat who was economically liberal but took some socially conservative stances, especially on abortion. He had spent six years as a congressman representing the swing voters in the state, which paid dividends when Mourdock imploded.

Childers won twice in the 1st District, which covered the northeastern portion of the state.  This area is a bit of an extension of Greater Appalachia, a hilly region settled by the Scots-Irish, and which has a longstanding tension with the planters of the Delta region. Although it realigned at the federal level in the 1990s, at the state level it sent conservative Democrats to the statehouse until the 2010s (it still sends some Democrats, but their numbers are diminished).  So, like Donnelly, Childers has shown himself able to win over the sort of voters that a Democrat needs to win over if he hopes to carry Mississippi: populist rural whites.

Now the caveats: Childers won twice in 2008, but lost by 14 points in 2010 to Alan Nunnelee. Donnelly hung on that year.  Granted, Childers’ district was more Republican than Donnelly’s, at least at the federal level. But Donnelly voted a more regular Democratic line than did Childers.

It’s also unclear that populist rural whites are still “gettable” in Mississippi. There was a general (long-awaited) swing against Democrats in 2010 in Greater Appalachia, resulting in a lot of Democrats who hadn’t committed “firing offenses” nevertheless finding themselves removed from office. Can this trend be reversed while Barack Obama is still president? We might be about to find out, though there are certainly reasons for skepticism.

2) Is Chris McDaniel analogous to Richard Mourdock? Here is where things get tricky. There is a tendency among commentators to assume that every Tea Party victor is a catastrophe waiting to happen.  This mindset ignores the numerous successful Tea Party candidates: senators such as Pat Toomey, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio. We just don’t know whether McDaniel will implode.

To be sure, there are warning signs. He expressed skepticism regarding hurricane relief, which could play poorly on the Gulf Coast. He has also spoken in front of groups associated with neo-Confederate causes (though McDaniel has disputed this). I’m not sure this latter point hurts as much as many think: This is Mississippi, a very rural state where there simply isn’t as much of an upscale, suburban white vote as there are in many other states.  That’s not to say that Mississippians are a bunch of neo-Confederates. It is simply to say that the act of speaking in front of such a group may not be the death knell that it would be elsewhere.

The best we can probably say of McDaniel is there are some danger signs for the GOP, but we will have to wait and see. But we should also ask: If he does “implode,” would it matter in Mississippi?

3) Is Mississippi analogous to Indiana? If the analogy founders, it does so on this question. Mississippi is a very conservative state, although Childers’ views may blunt its conservative tendencies somewhat.  More importantly, it is a heavily polarized state.  In 2008, when Barack Obama narrowly carried Indiana, he won African-Americans by a 90 percent-10 percent margin, but only lost whites by a 54 percent-45 percent margin.

Compare that result with Mississippi. The president won African-Americans by an astounding 98-2 margin. African-Americans make up 33 percent of the electorate here, so if the president had run as well among Mississippi’s whites as he did among Indiana’s whites, he would have won the state by over 20 points.

But the president didn’t. Mississippi’s whites voted like Indiana’s African-Americans, but in reverse, going for John McCain by an 88 percent-11 percent margin.  This isn’t simply about the president’s skin color, either. In 2008, Democrats were somewhat hopeful that former governor Ronnie Musgrove could mount a credible campaign against appointed Sen. Roger Wicker. That didn’t happen. Musgrove ran better than the president among whites, but still only managed 18 percent of the vote. True, Musgrove had been rejected by Mississippi voters in his 2003 re-election bid. But Childers was rejected by his constituents in 2010.

Mississippi is a conservative state. More importantly, it is a highly polarized state, where Democrats haven’t won a Senate or presidential race since 1982 (compare this with Indiana, which had fairly recent precedent for a presidential victory and a Senate win for Democrats).  Childers would have to fundamentally remake the political dynamics of the state to win.  I won’t say that’s impossible, but it will be difficult.

4) Is 2014 analogous to 2012? Finally, it is important to remember that Obama exited the 2012 elections with a 54 percent approval rating nationally.  Donnelly still ran within 10 points of Obama’s approval rating in Indiana.  We can’t say with certainty where things will end up in 2014, but for now, a 54 percent approval rating for the president on Election Day seems unlikely.

More importantly, the presidential electorate likely represents the high-water mark for African-American turnout in Mississippi. In other words, not only will Childers have to run five points ahead of Musgrove’s 2008 showing, he will probably have to do it in an electorate where many of Musgrove’s voters are unlikely to show up.

If Cochran had been unopposed in the primary, this race would probably be safely Republican. It isn’t anymore. With that said, it isn’t an automatic tossup either, for the reasons stated above.  Somewhere between “Leans Republican” and “Likely Republican” seems appropriate for now.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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