AP analysis: Neshoba County Fair should help shift focus of Mississippi’s race for U.S. Senate

Democrat Travis Childers, left, and Republican Sen. Thad Cochran. (AP photos)
Democrat Travis Childers, left, and Republican Sen. Thad Cochran. (AP photos)
Democrat Travis Childers, left, and Republican Sen. Thad Cochran. (AP photos)

JACKSON, Mississippi (AP) — Mississippi’s 2014 U.S. Senate race has been dominated by a bitter Republican primary that never seems to end. One of the state’s largest political gatherings, the Neshoba County Fair, could help shift the focus to a Democrat-versus-Republican narrative heading toward the Nov 4 general election.

The Democratic nominee for Senate, former U.S. Rep. Travis Childers, is scheduled to speak at the fair for 10 minutes on July 31. Six-term Republican Sen. Thad Cochran is scheduled for 10 minutes just after Childers.

Cochran’s campaign staff originally said he would speak at the fair only if the Senate isn’t working in Washington. They were firmer last week in saying he will show up at Neshoba.

The fair is a longstanding annual tradition in the red clay hills of east central Mississippi. In addition to horse races and midway rides, it features two days of political speeches under a tin-roofed pavilion the size of a small church, complete with long wooden benches and sawdust underfoot.

The audience is frequently rowdy, always conservative and overwhelmingly white. It can be a tough crowd for Democratic candidates, who have been heckled by people holding signs with a local Democrat’s picture between cutout photos of folks like Hillary Clinton and Mississippi’s only black congressman, Rep. Bennie Thompson.

There are no similar large-scale gatherings geared mostly toward black audiences that are considered must-do stops for Mississippi politicians. If there were, it would be interesting to compare candidates’ own speeches there to their speeches at Neshoba, to note how much they tailor their message to the people staring back at them.

At Neshoba this year, expect Cochran to offer a full-throated denunciation of the federal health overhaul law and a less-than-subtle warning that the nation could suffer if Democrats keep control of the Senate with Nevada’s Harry Reid as majority leader. Expect Childers to sidestep any mention of Reid and instead focus on his own support for gun rights and opposition to abortion.

Neshoba County is best known to the wider world as the place where, 50 years ago this summer, three civil rights workers were ambushed by Ku Klux Klansmen, shot to death and buried in an earthen dam. Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were killed on June 21, 1964. Their bodies were found 44 days later on Aug. 4, after an informant told the FBI where to dig.

On June 21, 2005 — 41 years to the day after the slayings — a mixed-race jury in Neshoba County convicted Edgar Ray Killen of manslaughter for masterminding the crime. A judge sentenced the former preacher to 60 years in prison, 20 for each death. He remains in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman (http://bit.ly/1tXrJCZ ).

In August 1980, Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan spoke at the Neshoba County Fair and declared: “I believe in state’s rights; I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level.” (A transcript is here, courtesy of the Neshoba Democrat newspaper:  http://bit.ly/1pgC3zj.) Critics pounced on Reagan’s mentioning “state’s rights,” a phrase often used by archconservatives to denounce federal involvement in school integration and voting-rights enforcement.

In the broader historical context of Neshoba County, and considering that Cochran survived the Republican primary with significant help from black voters, it would be noteworthy to hear Cochran take a stand on an issue he has largely avoided discussing in depth so far — a bill, supported by many civil-rights groups, that would restore federal oversight of elections in Mississippi and a few other states with a history of racial discrimination.