This time last year, Democrats were becoming increasingly optimistic about flipping a Senate seat in a deep-red state.
And by running against an alleged pedophile, they did — just barely. Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore, who was accused of inappropriate sexual conduct with minors, by a point and a half in an Alabama special election runoff.
Now in a neighboring ruby-red state, the Democrats are up against another flawed GOP nominee whose controversial comments have led to corporations pulling their support for her.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant appointed fellow Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith to the Senate seat vacated by former GOP Sen. Thad Cochran, who resigned for health reasons earlier this year. Hyde-Smith is now running to fill out the remaining two years of Cochran’s term against former Democratic Rep. Mike Espy, who also served as Agriculture secretary in the Clinton administration. She finished first in a four-way jungle primary on Nov. 6, followed closely by Espy. But with no one clearing 50 percent of the vote, both advanced to Tuesday’s runoff.
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The Mississippi race has attracted the sort of national attention that other isolated special elections have managed to over the past two years. And that’s only stepped up in the weeks following the circulation of a video in which Hyde-Smith tells a supporter she’d “be on the front row” of a public hanging if he invited her. It’s noteworthy that national groups from both parties are spending money in such a reliably Republican state.
Here are three things to watch on Election Day to see whether the race swings solidly the GOP’s way or whether there’s a chance Democrats could pull off another Alabama.
It’s a cliché that elections come down to turnout. But it’s unpredictable here with little precedent for an election the Tuesday after Thanksgiving.
High African-American turnout is Espy’s best shot at winning or even keeping it close. In 2016, 33 percent of African-Americans turned out to vote in Mississippi. But that was a presidential election year. Democrats are hoping Espy can drive their turnout even higher than that to reduce the percentage of the white vote he needs to carry.
Hyde-Smith’s comments have injected more energy and resources into the race. That’s allowed Espy to run what one source familiar with the campaign’s efforts called the “largest, strongest field program Mississippi has seen.” The campaign has knocked on over 100,000 doors and volunteers have made over 600,000 phone calls, just for the runoff. Working with the state Democratic Party, the campaign has sent millions of text messages reminding potential supporters to vote.
2. Are corporations people?
Major League Baseball, Walmart and a handful of other companies have asked Hyde-Smith to return their campaign contributions in the days leading up to the election. The question is whether that could translate to voters souring on her, too.
After dodging questions about her hanging comments, Hyde-Smith apologized in a debate last week “to anyone who was offended. But she insisted there was “no ill will” intended in her remarks and accused her opponent of twisting her comments for political gain.
She earned more bad headlines for appearing to express support for making it “just a little more difficult” for liberal college students to vote. (Her campaign later said she was joking.) There have been reports about her appearing in photos wearing a Confederate soldier’s hat, and over the weekend, the Jackson Free Press reported that Hyde-Smith had attended a segregated high school in the 1970s.
Espy has leaned into Hyde-Smith’s comments, not so much to attack her personally for being racist, but to argue that her views would hurt Mississippi.
“We can’t afford a senator who embarrasses us and reinforces the stereotypes we’ve worked so hard to overcome,” the narrator in one of his ads says.
Democrats hope Espy will be able to peel off at least some white voters turned off by Hyde-Smith’s rhetoric. But the question is whether there are enough white voters willing to vote for a black Democrat, whom Hyde-Smith has accused of being “too liberal” for the state.
In his column last week, Roll Call political analyst Stuart Rothenberg cast doubt on the idea that Espy could flip the seat because he hadn’t seen any public polling showing it in reach. That hasn’t changed. The one public poll that has come out, from RRH Elections, put Hyde-Smith ahead 54 percent to 44 percent. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Likely Republican.
3. The Trump factor
Hyde-Smith is hoping that President Donald Trump’s support will be enough to push her across the finish line Tuesday — he won Mississippi by 18 points in 2016. Also remember that Republican state Sen. Chris McDaniel took over 16 percent of the vote in the first round earlier this month. Hyde-Smith wants those voters to have a reason to come out to vote for her. While she herself has been elusive on the campaign trail and evasive of the press — she even sent Mississippi’s senior senator, Roger Wicker, onstage to talk to the media in her place after last week’s debate — she’s happy to use Trump as her megaphone. Her opening and closing lines at last week’s debate were all about the president’s election eve rallies for her.
Trump praised Hyde-Smith as a “special woman” at a rally in Tupelo on Monday.
“I’m here to ask the people of Mississippi to send Cindy Hyde-Smith back to the United States Senate so we can make America great again,” the president said. “She’s been there for a little while. And in that little while, everybody really respects her, really likes her and she loves you, that I can tell you.”
Hyde-Smith’s pitch all along has been that she is fully behind the president. Tuesday will be a test of just how much Trump can drive turnout even in a solitary, holiday-season special election.