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Crossover voting: Last week in Mississippi, next month in DeKalb County

So U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi on Tuesday thwarted a tea party effort to oust the 40-year Washington veteran by bringing black Democratic voters into what his opponent thought was a private duel between two Republican factions.

Georgia operatives had a hand in Cochran’s victory.

Late campaign disclosure documents filed in the race show that Mississippi Conservatives, a political action committee run by the son of that state’s former governor, Haley Barbour, paid tens of thousands of dollars to get-out-the-vote artist Mitzi Bickers, an African-American pastor and former president of the Atlanta school board.

Look for the tactic of crossover voting to be quickly duplicated elsewhere in the GOP’s civil war between conservative purity and pragmatism.

Leo Smith, the minority engagement director for the Georgia Republican party, serves as a mentor to a half-dozen young African-American Republicans with political ambition. Within days of Cochran’s victory, Smith said four of his wards received invitations from various (and unnamed) GOP campaigns to act as liaisons to African-American communities.

“We are in a phase where things are being stirred up, and these are people who are ready to spread the word, and are getting an opportunity to do exactly that,” Smith said.

In other words, the Cochran effect offers Republicans yet another opportunity to broaden their base – something GOP leaders say, time and again, is needed for their party’s survival.

Interim DeKalb County Sheriff Jeffrey Mann. AJC file

Interim DeKalb County Sheriff Jeffrey Mann. AJC file

Here and in Mississippi, the resort to crossover voting – asking your general-election enemy to pull your bacon out of the fire – has raised the hackles of some Republicans.

“There is something a bit strange, there is something a bit unusual about a Republican primary that’s decided by liberal Democrats,” said Chris McDaniel, the state senator who lost to Cochran. “So much for principles.”

But there’s no place for that kind of outrage – at least, not in Georgia, where Republicans have a history of crashing Democratic parties. In fact, GOP voters will do so again, in a major way, on July 22.

It is all but certain that Republicans will pick the next Democratic sheriff of DeKalb County. Which means the winner isn’t likely to be Vernon Jones, the former DeKalb CEO, but interim incumbent Jeff Mann.

This is an officially sanctioned case of crossover voting. Because Sheriff Tom Brown resigned mid-term, to make his unsuccessful Democratic primary challenge to U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, state law required a quick, special election to replace him.

Former DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones at the February kick-off of his campaign for sheriff. John Spink, jspink@ajc.com

Former DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones at the February kick-off of his campaign for sheriff. John Spink, jspink@ajc.com

Special elections are non-partisan, giving GOP voters a rare opportunity to insert themselves into an argument that would otherwise be settled within the confines of a Democratic primary.

A first vote on May 20, held concurrent with party primaries, winnowed a field of eight down to Mann and Jones. Democratic ballots cast in DeKalb County that day out-numbered Republican ones by 3-to-1. That dynamic will change in next month’s runoff.

On the Democratic side of primary voting, the top race will be the runoff for state school superintendent between state Rep. Alisha Morgan Thomas of Austell, and Valarie Wilson, a former member of the Decatur school board.

It’s a low-budget contest, and few extra voters will be driven to the polls by advertising, whether direct mail, radio or TV.

But on the Republican side of the ballot, voters will be picking the winner of the GOP race for U.S. Senate, the highest-dollar contest in the state. Substantial Republican turnout is expected.

The implications of the non-partisan contest have been obvious from the beginning. The general consultant for the Mann campaign is Mark Rountree of Landmark Communications, who specializes in Republican campaigns.

Both Mann and Jones are African-American. Rountree is not, so you might think that this could matter in DeKalb’s highly polarized climate.

But Rountree has worked for a Democrat in DeKalb before. In 2000, he was the strategist behind a young state representative who sought the top job in DeKalb County government, by portraying himself as a black conservative who could build bridges to white voters. His name was – and is — Vernon Jones.

We reached out to Jones this week, but he prefers not to speak to representatives of this newspaper.

DeKalb officialdom has lined up behind Mann, as have all the mayors of cities on the north side of DeKalb – Brookhaven, Dunwoody, Doraville, Chamblee and Avondale Estates.

Mann has worked both northside and southside voters, aided by Brown, the former sheriff. Mann was Brown’s chief deputy.

“He was my No. 2. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t groom him for the job,” Brown said. “For the last six years, I handled the political stuff. Jeff Mann ran the office.”

Brown says that Jones will still do well among blue-collar African-Americans in south DeKalb, but that his once-powerful allure is fading. Six years ago, in a Democratic runoff for U.S. Senate, Jones lost his home county to the eventual nominee, Atlanta attorney Jim Martin. Jones snared 40 percent of Democratic ballots then. Last month, his total was 22 percent.

“Vernon’s stock goes down as African-American personal income goes up,” Brown said.

But it is the prospect of thousands of Republican voters piling on that is Jones’ biggest hurdle. Even his friends agree.

State Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, has been an admirer of the former DeKalb CEO since their days together in the state Legislature. “Vernon Jones has great talent as a retail politician. But in this race, I think Crazy Horse has him surrounded, and I don’t think that there’s a way out for him,” Millar said.


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