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A Mississippi Senate Flip? Probably Not

Absent reliable data, Democratic chances there should be taken with skepticism

Appointed Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., is in the Mississippi Senate runoff with former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, a Democrat. Is the race close? That depends on your definition of close, Rothenberg writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Appointed Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., is in the Mississippi Senate runoff with former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, a Democrat. Is the race close? That depends on your definition of close, Rothenberg writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — Alabama Democrat Doug Jones demonstrated last year that candidates matter and that on the rarest occasions — such as when the majority party’s nominee is accused of sexual misconduct by many women — voters in federal races veer from their partisan loyalties. But Jones’s win was the exception, not the rule, and it shouldn’t obscure the difficulty Mississippi Democratic Senate hopeful Mike Espy faces in a runoff in one of the most Republican and conservative states in the entire country.

The Washington Post reported Sunday that the Mississippi Senate runoff “has turned into an unexpectedly competitive contest.” That’s hard to challenge, since expectations are a matter of opinion, as is competitiveness. But until I see hard evidence that Democrats have a realistic shot at the seat, count me as skeptical that the Mississippi seat is in play.

Espy is a quality candidate. A former Mississippi congressman (who represented the Delta) and U.S. secretary of Agriculture, he is well-liked on both sides of the aisle. His opponent, Republican incumbent Cindy Hyde-Smith, was appointed to fill a vacant Senate seat, and she has not distinguished herself as a campaigner. In fact, she has shown an unusual tendency to put her foot in her mouth.

But over the last five presidential elections in Mississippi, support given to Democratic nominees has ranged from a low of 39.8 percent of the vote (in 2004) to as much as 43.8 percent (in 2012, with Barack Obama on the ballot).

That’s a narrow range that shows how low the Democrats’ normal ceiling is.

The Post article acknowledges that “Espy remains the underdog” but adds that unreleased polling shows that Hyde-Smith’s lead “has narrowed significantly.”

When I handicapped individual races, I asked one crucial question: How much of a chance did each of the candidates in the race have?

I never tried to guess how close a race would be, only whether a state or district would flip.

Espy may or may not outperform Obama. I’m not sure whether he will, and I really don’t care.

My only concern is whether Espy has a chance to win.

In the Nov. 6 special election jungle primary, Espy received 40.6 percent of the vote, placing him only a single point behind first-place finisher Hyde-Smith — but well within the “normal” Democratic performance.

Another Republican, anti-establishment conservative Chris McDaniel, finished third with 16.5 percent of the vote.

McDaniel’s supporters thought that Hyde-Smith was too willing to compromise, too close to the GOP establishment. They opted to support a “Freedom Caucus” Republican instead of the incumbent Republican.

It’s difficult to imagine McDaniel voters opting for Espy over Hyde-Smith.

Of course, if all of McDaniel’s supporters stay home for the Nov. 27 runoff, that would be good news for Espy. But that’s unlikely.

In discussing the increasing competitiveness of the runoff, the Post article spent four paragraphs noting national and state party activities in the race. “Concern over the tightness of the race came up last week during a conference call that Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), head of the NRSC, held with Republican donors,” the piece said, noting that the newspaper had an audio tape of Gardner. “We take this race very, very seriously,” the NRSC chairman said, adding, “We have emptied out the building of the senatorial committee to two places: Florida and Mississippi.”

But taking Gardner literally here is a huge mistake. Campaign committees always use elections to raise money and create a sense of urgency.

They don’t want overconfidence to generate apathy, which could produce a nasty surprise. So, they talk about how competitive the race is and how much they need more money.

That’s all that Gardner was doing. He wasn’t offering a lesson in handicapping to party donors. He was trying to get rich Republicans to write checks.

As far as having “emptied out the building,” the NRSC doesn’t have much to do after Florida, so sending staffers to the one remaining race is standard political fare.

The newspaper article also included this observation: “The race in Mississippi is another measurement of whether the South is truly in the midst of a political transformation. The past year has seen a black lieutenant governor sworn into office in Virginia, steps from where Gen. Robert E. Lee assumed command of Confederate troops in 1861, and two black Democrats ran surprisingly strong races for governor in Florida and Georgia in contests marred by racial epithets.”

Portraying the runoff this way undoubtedly ratchets up its importance. But equating the 2018 Mississippi Senate contest to recent changes in Virginia’s realignment (due to the growth of the Washington, D.C., suburbs) or to Florida’s voting behavior is a serious mistake.

There is no regional realignment now underway in the South, though some states are evolving because of demographic changes. Mississippi is not one of those states.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, blacks make up about 37 percent of Mississippi’s population — the highest percentage in the nation. That’s a solid base for any Democrat who wants to run statewide. But the white vote in the state is heavily polarized behind the GOP, making it almost impossible for a Democrat to win a statewide federal race.

Hyde-Smith’s comments about public hangings and voter suppression, as well as her clunky handling of the controversies, could well alienate some more cosmopolitan voters in the state.

In Alabama, Republican Roy Moore was a much more radioactive political figure, and he drew 48.4 percent of the vote in a Senate special election, losing his race by just a point and a half.

Trump won 58 percent of the vote in Mississippi in 2016, but that understates the state’s reliably Republican bent.

White voters are very conservative and very partisan, which is why the last Democrat to win a statewide federal office was John Stennis in 1982, before Mississippi had fully realigned to the GOP.

I don’t know if Espy will outperform other recent Mississippi Democratic nominees for the Senate and for the White House.

He could, given Hyde-Smith’s ineptness. But I’d be careful not to get caught up in the hype surrounding the race until we see reliable surveys showing a realistic path for Espy.

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