‘From where I’m standing today, knowing what I know, they’re both philosophically very much alike…’
(Ben Sellers, Liberty Headlines) If Democrats manage to flip another seat in the U.S. Senate—narrowing Republicans’ majority, and their midterm net gain, to a single vote—the GOP may have Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to thank.
As the dust settles on the many recount crises of the 2018 election, the GOP has emerged largely victorious from hard-fought legal battles in Georgia and Florida.
However, with a concession in Arizona having whittled away at the projected Senate majority by officially giving to Democrats the seat of retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, all eyes now fall on whether the Left can orchestrate a flip in the Mississippi runoff election scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 27.
While many around the nation will have their attention directed elsewhere, emerging from their Thanksgiving tryptophan comas and tending to their Black Friday battle scars, the racially charged campaign between Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith and Democrat Mike Espy in one of the Deep South’s most reliably red states is a prime candidate for Democrat shenanigans.
“There’s never been an election on Nov. 27—a couple days after Thanksgiving—before,” Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist overseeing the Espy campaign, told the Daily Beast. “We don’t know if [turnout is] going to be 300,000 or a million.”
To top it all off, like last year’s special election in Alabama to replace former Sen. Jeff Sessions, the GOP may again be forced to reconcile the greater good (in padding its majority) with the embrace of a candidate who has a knack for generating controversy.
It was at McConnell’s behest that Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryan in April appointed Smith, previously the state’s commissioner of agriculture and commerce, to take over for longtime senator Thad Cochran when the octogenarian resigned citing health reasons.
McConnell hoped to ensure a reliable moderate would replace Cochran, who had narrowly staved off a challenge on the Right from conservative Chris McDaniel, and to give Smith an incumbency advantage leading into the midterm election.
However, Smith’s appointment was immediately met with some reluctance within the party because she had previously served in state offices as a Democrat, and had voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary election, before switching to Republican in 2010.
With no primary to secure the GOP nomination this year, McDaniel ran against Smith in the Nov. 6 special election, drawing 16.5 percent of the vote to Smith’s 41.5 percent. Espy finished with 40.6 percent, just under 8,000 votes shy of Smith’s lead. Since no candidate finished above 50 percent, the state’s laws required a runoff election between the two leading candidates.
Under normal circumstances, victory for Smith would be a lock, as she would likely draw most of the nearly 150,ooo votes McDaniel had garnered. But with so much at stake, nothing can be taken for granted—and Smith, for her part, has done little to help ease the worries in her recently adopted party.
In the span of a week following the Nov. 6 election, she drew negative headlines, first for joking that if one of her supporters invited her to a public hanging, she would be in the front row. Supporters of Espy, who is black, were quick to link the comments to Mississippi’s troubled racial past and history of Jim Crow-era lynchings.
The Left then attacked her for joking about making it “more difficult” for liberal college students to vote—amid much heated discussion on both ends of the political spectrum about issues of election fraud and disfranchisement following recent recounts.
Smith is scheduled to debate Espy on Tuesday, Nov. 20 in what could produce some uncomfortable moments.
The controversies—and the increased national media scrutiny on the midterms’ final race—may well help to mobilize Democrats.
Espy’s fundraising during the regular election was paltry compared with that of many battleground campaigns—in a year where Democrats’ funding, driven by billionaire plutocrats and special interests taking advantage of looser spending restrictions, far outpaced their Republican counterparts.
But liberals with leftover campaign cash burning a hole in their warchests could set their sights on the Mississippi race if victory appears within reach—particularly as a way to validate the tight losing campaigns of black gubernatorial candidates Andrew Gillum (Fla.) and Stacey Abrams (Ga.).
Moreover, as of September, McDaniel had declined to endorse Smith in a possible runoff scenario, despite heaping his criticism mainly on Espy.
“From where I’m standing today, knowing what I know, they’re both philosophically very much alike,” McDaniel told Mississippi Today. “But because of Mr. Espy’s past indictments [for accepting illegal gifts] and his past direct work with the Clinton administration, that causes me grave concern.”
Should Republicans encounter an enthusiasm gap—either in protest of Smith, due to general election fatigue, or because an unexpected influx of voters in the liberal base, particularly the black vote—it could spell trouble.
Like the special Alabama election, in which Democrat Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore to replace Sessions—thereby delivering a symbolic victory to stem the Trumpian momentum of 2016 and shift the media narrative—the Left may see Mississippi as its last stand before the 2020 race to defeat Trump ensues.
The similarities between the two special elections weren’t lost on Trippi.
“If you overlaid the Alabama result on the Mississippi electorate, Doug Jones would have won Mississippi by 8 points,” Trippi told Vice News. “I’m not saying that there aren’t things to get over. I’m saying if you thought Alabama wasn’t possible and you look at the data and the real facts and you look at who is registered—then if a Democrat can win in Alabama, a Democrat can win in Mississippi.”
Although President Trump was initially hesitant to endorse Smith, he eventually threw his support behind her.
On Monday, he announced his plan to stump for her with a rally in Biloxi the day before the runoff.
.@cindyhydesmith loves Mississippi and our Great U.S.A. https://t.co/hQPC4CrhDi
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 19, 2018