Believe it or not we still have several races uncalled two weeks after Election Day and one more race still to go. I want to focus on that race, the Mississippi Senate run-off. The sleepy affair was widely expected to advance to a run-off with appointed GOP Senator Cindy Hyde Smith running against Democrat Mike Espy and another Republican Chris McDaniel. Between McDaniel and Hyde the GOP candidates (officially in run-offs all candidates are listed as non-partisan on the ballot) combined to win 57 percent of the vote. So, unsurprisingly, the race was widely expected to be an easy GOP victory.
But recent special election results in 2017 in neighboring Alabama, the untimely comments of Cindy Hyde-Smith and political pundits needing a story to write about have brought into question how safe the seat actually is for Republicans.
The over-arching question is just how safe is this seat for Republicans? To assess this we need to look at the state’s political history, recent events and the candidates themselves. Probably needless to say (but I will say it anyway), Mississippi is currently a GOP bastion. Most recently, Donald Trump carried the state by 20 points. In the mid 2000’s, the state elected a GOP Governor and the legislature turned solidly red for the first time since Reconstruction. Before that the state was a Democratic fortress.
The turn for the state’s voting habits occurred in the 70’s with Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy. Still, until the above, the state maintained Democratic loyalties down-ballot and in some cases that matters for Democratic incumbents or challengers (see Joe Manchin’s victory in a state Trump won by 42 points). Thad Cochran was one of the first beneficiaries of the state’s political shift. Cochran was the first Republican in over a century to win a statewide race with barely 45 percent of the vote. Until 2016, he increased his winning margins. Cochran was actually defeated by Chris McDaniel in the initial GOP primary in 2016, but managed to barely win a run-off since neither candidate got 50 percent in the first round. Cochran would do this by courting cross-over black Democrats with whom he had a good relationship.
Cochran resigned due to health reasons in 2017 and Governor Bentley appointed Cindy Hyde-Smith as his successor. Smith, like many current Republican officeholders, formerly was a Democrat. But she sure is a conservative now. Democrats, emboldened by their win in Alabama, courted and successfully recruited Mike Espy, a former two-term Congressman and Secretary of Agriculture. Espy is the ideal Democratic candidate. He is black, which should excite the Democratic base to turn out, and he has a history of bipartisanship which should get some Independent votes. For example, in 2007 he endorsed former Governor Haley Barbour for Governor. Barbour is not a Democrat.
The state is basically split between the majority-black Western half of the state and the majority-white Eastern half. The reason is because Mississippi’s electoral politics are largely defined by race. As the New York Times put it, Mississippi is one of the “least elastic” states in the country because electoral politics is defined by race. This does not bode well for Espy because it means he starts with a floor of support of about 35 percent but a likely ceiling of around 45 percent.
Of course, the same argument was made about Alabama and Doug Jones chances there. Except the common narrative about that race is wrong. Jones did not win because he won a ton of cross-over votes. Rather, he won because suburban Republicans did not turn out for Roy Moore. By not turn out I mean they did not vote. For anybody. Indeed, Moore won only 49 percent of the vote Trump did.
Hyde’s campaign, largely on cruise control until last week, was thrown into turmoil when comments at an event indicated she was supportive of hangings. She did not apologize but instead attacked the media for misrepresenting her words while Democrats used it to paint her as insensitive to the state’s past. It gets worse. At a campaign event, Smith indicated liberals should not be allowed to vote. Her campaign indicated it was a joke.
Whether recent events give Democrats an opening depend on whether it turns off suburban Republicans in DeSoto, Harrison and Jackson Counties. These counties have given the GOP a 100K vote cushion in every federal statewide race since 2010. Smith is obviously worried as her campaign has taken to attacking Espy on various ethical scandals but few polls exist of the contest.
Basically, Democrats have to hope one of three things or some combination of these things occur for an Espy win. Republican turnout drops sharply not just from 2016 but the 2018 run-off levels. Remember, Republicans got 57 percent of the combined vote a few weeks ago. Second, Democratic turnout has to jump significantly. This is unlikely considering turnout has historically dropped for Democrats in run-offs. Lastly, Hyde has to continue to damage herself with off the cuff remarks.
It would probably take all three for Democrats to claim a victory after Thanksgiving. This, is unlikely.