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Robert Bennett: 'You never really know what's going to happen in politics'

Published: Monday, June 30 2014 7:07 a.m. MDT

U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., addresses supporters and volunteers at his runoff election victory party Tuesday, June 24, 2014, at the Mississippi Children's Museum in Jackson, Miss.

Rogelio V. Solis, Associated Press

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One of my earliest memories in politics is a conversation with a loyal Republican who lived in Carbon County, the most heavily Democratic county in the state at the time. "All of us vote in the Democratic primary here," he said. "If we didn't, we wouldn't have any voice in who our local officials are, because that's the only election that counts." That came to mind when the outcome of the Mississippi primary was announced last week.

Just about every observer of that race, including me, assumed that Thad Cochran would lose to Chris McDaniel, the tea party candidate who had won the first round. Some Democratic consultants were cheering for McDaniel because they thought his nomination could create the opportunity for an unexpected Democratic upset. Others said Mississippi was too much of a Republican stronghold for that but that McDaniel would at least damage the Republican brand enough to help Democrats win in other states. No one was talking about what would happen if Cochran won.

But he did, and one of the reasons is the logic used by the man in Carbon County. Mississippi Democrats, particularly African-Americans, knew that the Republican primary was "the only election that counts." By voting in it, for the first time in decades they could actually have a voice in who their state's senator would be, an opportunity too attractive to pass by. They rejected the idea of saddling Republicans with the man who would be the weaker candidate; instead, they voted for the man who would be the better senator. And, as they worked for a Cochran win, many of them discovered, to their great surprise, that Republicans are not such bad people after all.

While tea party groups are yelling "foul!" there is no doubt they would have encouraged crossover voting if they thought it would have helped their cause. McDaniel himself is reported to have voted in the Democratic primary in 2003.

Utah is as solidly a Republican state as Mississippi; however, a crossover vote of this magnitude has never occurred here. With Republican candidates prescreened by a convention before being placed on the ballot, Democrats and independents, seeing only little differences between them, have had no motivation to try to enter the Republican primary.

This could change in 2016. Under the new rules, a candidate who wishes to bypass the convention and go directly to the primary ballot can do so by gathering petition signatures. Rumblings are already being heard about potential Republican challengers to sitting incumbents who plan to do just that. In that situation, Utah's Democrats and independents might be tempted to behave like their Mississippi brethren and sisters and step into the Republican primary in order to influence the outcome. They would have to register as Republicans to do it, but they could always renounce that action once their ballots had been cast; the satisfaction of having been participants rather than bystanders might make any temporary discomfort go away quickly.

Cochran's victory in Mississippi has shown us that you never really know what's going to happen in politics. That is doubly true when the game starts to be played with a new set of rules. Utah will probably remain predominantly a one party state, but it could well be on the threshold of a new dynamic regarding "the only election that counts."

Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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