The only fireworks at the Neshoba County Fair were the ones over the racetrack signaling the end of the Fair on Friday night. Except for a local judicial race, civility reigned during political speeches.
Thursday was supposed to be the day of uproar. The South Mississippi Tea Party called for protesters to disrupt any "wonderful love fest" Senator Thad Cochran and Governor Phil Bryant and other Republicans might project. About a dozen folks showed up with signs reading "Betrayed" or "RINO."
Following Cochran's welcoming standing ovation, as others in the Pavilion returned to their pews, a few protesters continued to stand, holding signs with tape over their mouths. An elderly lady behind them yelled for them to sit down. They did.
Cochran met or exceeded expectations. His opponent, Travis Childers, campaigned on raising the minimum wage and expanding Medicaid. But it was Mississippi Speaker of the House Philip Gunn who addressed "the 800-pound gorilla under the Pavilion."
Gunn could have talked about the Republican majority's legislative accomplishments or their agenda going forward, but instead spoke about "the divide that seems to exist in the Republican Party as a result of the United States Senate race." It wasn't a ploy. He used his entire speech to address it.
"This divide must be healed," he said, "for the health of the party and more importantly the health of our state. We've got to meet this issue head-on and we've got to find a way to bring unity back to our party."
Gunn said, "I'm proud to be a conservative Republican. I believe the Republican Party is the party of the people because we are the party of opportunity. Our policies and our values are the roadmap to success in Mississippi. We have better ideas, we have a better plan and we have better leaders. The Democratic Party is never going to be the home of conservative values. It's just not. The conservative values live with the Republican Party. If you believe in limited government, if you believe in living within your means, if you believe in religious freedom, the right to bear arms; if you believe in increased freedom, increased opportunity and increased jobs, then the Republican Party is your home. You are part of our family and you are welcome under our tent."
Gunn described a political party like a marriage. He said all marriages have disagreements, but that isn't the problem. The problem comes when there is no reconciliation. He said every time he and his wife have a disagreement they have a choice to make, they can abandon the marriage or they can work it out.
"The sign of a strong marriage is not that you have an absence of disagreement, but that you have the ability to reconcile," he said. "The same holds true for a political party...we cannot heal as a party if we engage in name calling or backbiting...we need to talk one another, we need to listen to others' concerns, we need to value each others' opinions, we need to respect each others' thoughts, we must not shut out the voice of anyone who truly wants to be part of the conservative movement."
It is true, there are a lot of hurt feelings out there - whether intentionally or accidentally hurt. For example, last week when writing about the South Mississippi Tea Party missive calling for protesters, I misidentified it as coming from the Southwest Mississippi Tea Party and contrasted the e-mail with their own calls for civility and unity. One of the leaders and founders of the Southwest Mississippi Tea Party, Sharon Honea, contacted me and said I got it wrong and I should apologize to her and her husband. I did get it wrong and I do apologize.
I asked Honea about her group's goals. She said in an e-mail, "At the moment, it is trying to work to heal the rift within the Republican Party. We started out as being against Obama and the direction that Liberals were taking our country, and that is still our primary goal, but in lieu of this year's State Senate race, I see a new mission, that being to try and heal the party."
Honea, who currently serves as vice-chairman of the Pike County Republican Party, described early conflicts within the Mississippi Tea Party over ideology and said she and Pat Bruce of the Madison Conservative Coalition were the "Republican friendly" voices who sought to keep the Tea Party "from becoming completely Libertarian." Now her message is to those in the Mississippi Republican Party: "Please stop eating your own! You can't win the war by slaying your own warriors!"
Voices like Gunn and Honea are calling for reconciliation. It is up to "Cochran Republicans" and "Chris McDaniel Republicans" individually to decide whether to listen, heal and reconcile.
Brian Perry is a columnist for the Madison County Journal and a partner with Capstone Public Affairs, LLC. He is treasurer of Mississippi Conservatives PAC which supported Thad Cochran in the Republican Primary. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.