Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith versus Democrat Mike Espy in 2018’s final Senate election.
The midterm elections aren’t over. This week, Mississippi freshman GOP Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Democratic challenger Mike Espy will face off in the year’s final Senate election, a runoff that gives Democrats one last sliver of hope for a shocking 2018 upset.
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It’s undeniably a long shot. Donald Trump won Mississippi by 18 points in 2016. Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, the state’s senior senator, just won reelection by nearly 20 points earlier this month. Mississippi hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since the 1980s — and that last Democrat was a staunch segregationist.
The reason for even a little Democratic optimism is a brief glance to the east, where Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) won a stunning special election victory a year ago. Strong Democratic turnout, particularly among black voters, and a flawed GOP opponent powered Jones to that unlikely win in Alabama. Espy, a black former Democratic Congress member and agriculture secretary under President Bill Clinton, could run a similar playbook in Mississippi, where 35 percent of the potential electorate is African American.
“In a world in which you elected a Democrat in Alabama, it is easier to elect a Democrat in Mississippi,” said Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign manager who hails from the state and has run GOP campaigns there. “But Cindy Hyde-Smith isn’t Roy Moore.”
It’s true that Hyde-Smith — elected to two terms as Mississippi agriculture commissioner before being appointed to replace longtime Sen. Thad Cochran last year — does not seem to have anything as obviously disqualifying in her past as Moore, the Republican who lost in Alabama after he faced multiple allegations of sexual misconduct involving minors.
But in the short sprint between the November 6 primary and the November 27 special election, Hyde-Smith has gotten herself into trouble with a series of statements that finally drew national attention to one of 2018’s undercovered races. First, she spoke approvingly (if figuratively) of public hangings in a state with an ugly history of lynchings. Then she seemed to endorse voter suppression (again, likely a poorly phrased “joke”) in the state that pioneered Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise black voters after Reconstruction. A few more stories in the same vein followed: Hyde-Smith attended a white segregationist school in her youth and more recently posted pictures on Facebook wearing a Confederate uniform.
Hyde-Smith is still the favorite. She has led every head-to-head poll, and election forecasters think the race leans toward Republicans. But in 2018’s final Senate drama, Democrats do have a chance to pull off the upset and shrink next year’s Republican majority.