Republicans who attended the 2014 political speeches at Neshoba County Fair on July 31 were divided due to months of a heated U.S. Senate primary, but the entire crowd agreed on one thing: the likability of former Mississippi Gov. William Winter. Everyone rose after Winter's speech, in which racial reconciliation was the main theme.
"If you asked me this morning what were the most important things that happened in Mississippi in my lifetime, I would unhesitatingly tell you that it was the elimination of racial segregation in the 1960s," Winter said. He added that the second is the greater importance Mississippi has placed on adequate education in the years since.
Coincidentally, race played a major role in the fracture within the Republican Party after U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran began soliciting votes from black voters, mostly Democrats, for the run-off in June.
Near the stage on the left side of the pavilion, where the candidates and political leaders spoke, an older white-haired woman held her Cochran sign high above her head in an attempt to block the one raised behind her. A man sitting behind her, who wore a piece of red duct tape across his mouth, held a sign that read "betrayed."
The man, Tupelo Tea Party Coordinator Grant Sowell, sat with others holding "betrayed" signs and one other that read "RINO" (or Republican in Name Only).
The red duct tape, which was also worn across the mouths of children in the audience, was meant to symbolize their feelings of being silenced.
"We've been alienated by our own party. It's one thing for Democrats to attack Republicans or conservatives. It's another thing for mainstream media to kind of go after the tea party or a strong conservative like Chris McDaniel," Sowell said.
"But it's another thing altogether for the Republican Party to eat their young and to attack their very own people and then expect a group hug when it's all over."
Cochran called for such a group hug when he asked for a collective vote from Republicans at Neshoba County Fair.
"Whether you voted for me or not in the primary, I'm now asking everyone to join together. Let's unite so we can win in November," Cochran told the audience.
Sowell said the Tea Party questions the way Mississippi leaders endorsed Cochran for re-election.
"Our governor, our lieutenant governor, Congressman (Gregg) Harper; all of these men endorsed Thad Cochran, yet it's become clear and evident that there was at the very least unethical practices, if not illegal practices, that have taken place, and we have not really heard them call them out," Sowell said.
Mississippi Speaker of the House Philip Gunn addressed the tensions between members of the Republican Party when he spoke, calling the party's divide an "800-pound gorilla under the pavilion" that no one wants to talk about.
"Conservatives are at a crossroad today ... we can abandon the party because were having a disagreement, or we can hang in there, we can talk to one another, we can listen to one another, we can find common ground, and we can work to make our party stronger," Gunn said.
Mississippi Democratic Party Chairman Rickey Cole said he hopes the Republican Party doesn't find reconciliation—and he doesn't believe they will due to deep-rooted differences.
"They're really divided along a real philosophical cleavage," Cole said, explaining that the differences between the GOP establishment Republicans—like the ones backing Cochran—and the Tea Party Republicans are mostly fiscal.
While Tea Party members tout balancing the federal budget, Cole said the establishment Republicans see "federal and state government as their own personal ATM machine."
"With a 17-trillion-dollar debt, bragging about how much pork barrel spending you can bring home to your state is probably not a winning strategy for somebody who wants to win in a state like Mississippi because most Mississippians are very concerned about this national debt," Cole said.
None of the other speakers discussed the issues inside the Republican Party due to the Senate race. Instead, Cochran attempted to appeal to conservatives—those who may have been burned by him during the primary—by bashing the Affordable Care Act, emphasizing reduced spending and touting the farm bill.
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Travis Childers told the crowd that political parties mean little when it comes to deciding on issues, and that he depends more on the difference between right and wrong than right and left. Poverty, lack of education, lack of health care and unemployment, Childers said, "don't know a political party."
"They're Mississippi problems," Childers said. "It is wrong for the state of Mississippi not to try to work with the federal government to help 300,000 people have insurance," Childers said.
Childers also called for equal pay, a raise in minimum wage, and a balanced-budget amendment. Cole said Childers' emphasis on spending might appeal to Tea Party members, creating the possibility for party line crossover come November.
With Cochran remaining on stage, Gov. Phil Bryant threw some red meat to Republicans, attempting to regain some of his tea-party bona fides that came into question after his support of Cochran, by touting the Religious Freedom Restoration Act he signed earlier this year and slashes to taxes 40 times in the last three years.
Bryant faces re-election in 2015 and confirmed he will run again on SuperTalk after his speech.