The right’s mistake was waking the others

The tea partyers made a serious blunder in Mississippi, costing them a runoff win: They carelessly slipped their magic passion potion to the opposition.

The hard right’s strength comes from the nearly religious fervor that propels its small numbers to the polls at times when the larger numbers are snoozing. In Mississippi, the right woke up the larger numbers.

Hold that thought, will you?

What had been a race between an old Southern pork-master Republican and an insurgent small-government firebrand was turned into something bigger, much bigger.

One sensed Chris McDaniel might be in trouble when Sen. Thad Cochran asked Democrats, black voters especially, to support him. (Such crossover voting is allowed under the rules.) But when the right-wingers went into rage mode, vowing to patrol the balloting, you knew it was all over. They had handed the opposition a crusade to march in.

Just the hint of possible intimidation of black voters sent people to the polls — even though such fears did not seem to materialize. Ballots cast at some predominantly black precincts jumped 500 percent or more in the runoff over the June 3 primary.

The tea party delights in targeting less ideological Republicans, but it does so fair and square. Its people show up for primaries in midterm elections — again, when other voters are scarce.

The secret to right-wing turnout is social. The movement offers members community and a sense of belonging. Fox News offers nonstop entertainment, a daily parade of photogenic celebrities from the right. The soft-spoken Cochran was not made for the dramatics of political TV.

Politics as national spectacle do not linger on local concerns. Note how McDaniel offered his voters not road projects funded by Washington but reflected glory.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said in a campaign stop, “next time Ted Cruz stands on that floor, next time Mike Lee stands on that floor, next time Rand Paul stands on that floor to fight for you, a son of Mississippi will stand next to them.”

Those on the left who try to copy this model on MSNBC and elsewhere fail. These shows tend to be wonky, and yes, lefty big thinkers can take on an air of superiority and exclusion.

Moderates are less likely to vote than partisans of either the right or the left, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. And when it comes to primary elections, far more reliably conservative adults say they always vote than do consistent liberals.

Meanwhile, moderate voters tend to be younger and therefore more distracted by family and work than many on the right. Similar low participation is seen among Hispanics (itself a generally younger group) and single women.

So let’s go back to the thought we were holding. We can discuss the reasons moderates and many liberals don’t bother voting in lower-profile races. But those reasons cannot be excuses.

It’s exasperating to read headlines such as “Hopes Frustrated, Many Latinos Reject the Ballot Box Altogether.” In this New York Times story, an immigrant advocate trying to register 18-year-olds to vote could not get a single positive response.

The activist told the reporter, “They were like, ‘Why? Why would I bother to vote?’” The apparent reason was disappointment with both parties over immigration reform.

Thing is, the other side never gives up. The tea partyers lose, and then they’re back. They circle the dates of every upcoming primary on their calendars.

Moderates, by temperament, are generally unsuited to emotion-packed ideological campaigns. Thus, those seeking their votes must make voting itself their great cause.

They were lucky this time in Mississippi. The tea party won’t always be so helpful.

Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.

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