A victory in more ways than one. Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
A victory in more ways than one. Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

U.S. Senator Thad Cochran made history yesterday, accomplishing what some had thought impossible, even unthinkable, for a Mississippi Republican: In a state where 37 percent of the population is black, Cochran actually won a smattering of black votes -- enough to eke out a narrow upset in his primary runoff against state Senator Chris McDaniel.

The novelty of the approach -- Cochran asked for black votes in the three-week runoff and spent campaign funds pursuing them -- seems unlikely to be repeated in a Republican primary anytime soon. It wouldn’t work in most states, in any case. Mississippi allowed Democrats to vote in the Republican runoff if they hadn't voted in the June 3 Democratic primary. And McDaniel seemed sufficiently alarming to Democrats, and Cochran sufficiently benign, to encourage some of them to turn out for the incumbent.

Cochran promised to sustain the flow of federal spending that keeps his poor state afloat. (What the senator lacks in vision, he makes up in pork, courtesy of taxpayers in other states.)

McDaniel offered something both grander and more insidious: restoration. He promised to take his party, state and nation to a place -- he never quite spelled out where -- in which everything would be as it once was. In his defiant nonconcession speech, McDaniel invoked Ronald Reagan and balanced budgets with equal fervor, never acknowledging the incongruity between the two. And as if the 1980s were of dubiously recent vintage, he said, in an echo of Barry Goldwater's 1964 Republican convention speech, that "there is nothing dangerous or extreme about defending the Constitution and the civil liberties therein."

The history of race in America, especially in the South, is in part the conflicted history of the Constitution "and the civil liberties therein." When McDaniel and other conservative whites draw on nostalgia for the good old days, they summon an era when blacks were excluded from constitutional protection or liberty.

Cochran's victory won't alter the sluggish racial dynamics of his party, or the challenge Republicans face in figuring out how to ask for and win nonwhite votes. But it should be counted as a victory for the future over the past. In Maryland, which has a smaller black population than Mississippi’s, Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown won the Democratic primary for governor, making him the favorite to be the state's first black chief executive. Four decades ago, George Wallace won Maryland's Democratic presidential primary. Things change. Even in Mississippi.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View's editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.