Chris McDaniel, pioneer. Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Chris McDaniel, pioneer. Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Mississippi state Senator Chris McDaniel isn't just a sore loser: He's also a pioneer, of sorts. In a rare development, racial politics is getting heavy play in a Republican primary thanks to a June 24 Republican Senate runoff election between McDaniel and U.S. Senator Thad Cochran.

After losing the runoff to Cochran, McDaniel has taken to accusing his fellow Republican of vote fraud, a charge laden with racial implications. "Mississippians deserve a full accounting of the unbecoming tactics of the Cochran campaign used in their attempt to drive ineligible voters to the polls in June," McDaniel said in a statement this week.

The "unbecoming tactics" seem largely to be Cochran's outreach to black voters, a Republican oddity. (Based on exit polls, Mitt Romney captured all of about 4 percent of Mississippi's black vote in 2012.) The "ineligible voters" are the thousands of black Mississippians -- "liberal Democrats" is another McDaniel campaign euphemism -- who subsequently cast ballots for Cochran in the runoff, helping the 76-year-old incumbent eke out a surprise victory.

As a legal matter, it's hard to see much merit in McDaniel's claims. Voters are allowed to vote in a Mississippi primary if they intend to support the nominee in the general election. And good luck proving what voters in June "intend" to do in November. You might as well ask what they intend to have for dinner a year from now.

But as intramural Republican politics, the Mississippi conflict may be more than theater. Race wasn't the stuff of entertainment when, starting in the 1960s, Democrats fought bitter battles in urban primaries across the country. New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles all featured heavily Democratic electorates and racially polarized campaigns. Racial politics played out less vulgarly in Democratic presidential primaries -- at least once former Alabama Governor George Wallace left the scene.

Today, with the party successfully integrated and its racial wounds largely soothed, the race card may not be worth much in Democratic politics. When Bill and Hillary Clinton toyed with racial themes in combatting Obama in the 2008 presidential primary, outraged liberals forced them into a speedy retreat. And as Tom Edsall wrote last November, race was mostly absent from recent contests in cities -- including New York and Boston -- with long histories of hard racial politics.

Republicans have loads of experience with race in general elections -- they didn't end up lords of the Southland by accident. But racial politics in primaries is less common. George W. Bush and Arizona Senator John McCain skirmished in South Carolina in the 2000 presidential primary -- if the smear campaign by Bush forces, laced with racism, qualifies as a "skirmish." The Republican Senate primary in Oklahoma this year featured a run by T.W. Shannon, a Tea-Partyish 36-year-old former Speaker of the Oklahoma House who is part black and part Chickasaw. But nonwhites such as Shannon, who lost by double digits, largely remain Republican outliers, and race is rarely mentioned either by them or their opponents.

Yet if race can be so readily exploited in a Republican primary between two white men -- in a rare instance in which blacks proved willing to vote for one of them -- it may suggest a bumpy road to redemption.

Black and white Democrats brutalized one another for years before easing into a relatively stable accommodation on race that culminated in the nation's first black president. Republicans no doubt would prefer to skip the self-flagellation phase and move straight from a history of exploiting race to making inroads with Hispanic, Asian and black voters. Ideally, Republicans could benefit from the racial experience of Democrats without having to repeat it. So far, the McDaniel wing of the party doesn't seem eager to seize the opportunity.

To contact the writer of this article: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net.