For weeks if not months, there is media and coffee club speculation about the hearts and minds of American voters. Then election day comes, and we find out. The answer in Mississippi was, “We’re pretty much where we were two years ago, four years ago, six years ago …”
Much in the political realm is counter-intuitive. The prime example is that while Congress, as a whole, earns very little respect — as low as an 8 percent approval rating — voters keep sending the same people back. (This is largely a result of creating safe districts for incumbents, the influence of big donors and the cost of campaigning, but that’s another column.)
Another anomaly is that when the stars align, blood enemies suddenly become lifelong pals. During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump dubbed his rival from Texas as “Lying Ted Cruz.” This fall, Trump campaigned heartily for Cruz and took credit for his narrow re-election to the Senate.
Even a liar is better than a Democrat?
Similarly, in Mississippi where Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith will face Democrat Mike Espy on Nov. 27 to see who serves the two years remaining on Thad Cochran’s term, the hard-charging state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who finished a distant third, threw his support to Hyde-Smith.
“Mr. Espy cannot be allowed to win this seat,” he told his supporters after a campaign during which he harangued Hyde-Smith a closet Democrat (or at least an inauthentic conservative) who really supported Hillary Clinton. In conceding, McDaniel didn’t send Hyde-Smith hugs and kisses. It was more like, “She’ll have to do until voters wake up.”
Speculation was that turnout would be up, and it was. Thirty-five percent more ballots were cast last week than in the 2014 midterms. It could be that energized Democrats formed much of the increase. For example, while incumbent U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker won convincingly, state Sen. David Baria, his Democratic opponent, polled 335,000 votes. Compare that to the 239,000 polled four years ago by former U.S. Rep. Travis Childers, the Democratic challenger to former Sen. Thad Cochran in the last midterm.
And that leads to this: What are the factors in the Hyde-Smith – Espy runoff?
Simply said, Hyde-Smith has it to lose. She’s an “incumbent,” serving in the Senate since April after an anointing by popular Gov. Phil Bryant in a state that consistently gauges at least 65 percent Republican.
Her campaign has been to bask in the glow of Trump’s vocal adoration. Given Trump’s popularity in Mississippi, she will likely continue to rely on clips and quips, avoid expressing independent thought, much less discuss any topic in detail during a debate or otherwise. She’ll also hope her “funny” comment about public hangings goes away.
Hyde-Smith’s big task is the same as Espy’s. They finished almost dead even in vote totals, so they are equally challenged to get their supporters back to polling places.
Espy must swim against the current. He could pick up the smattering of votes that fellow Democrat Tobey Bartee received last week, but that wouldn’t be nearly enough to be decisive. Too, it’s not likely that any McDaniel voters will cross into his camp.
Because Espy campaigns as an honest broker as opposed to a zealot, his challenge is to find a way to fire up his likely voters, perhaps to actually increase his total. The voters are out there, by the way. Last week’s statewide turnout was 860,000. Two years ago in the presidential contest, 1.2 million ballots were cast. In numbers, where Espy won 351,00 votes last week, Hillary Clinton won 485,000 Mississippi votes in 2016.
It will come as no surprise if President Trump returns to Mississippi to laud Hyde-Smith. It could at least make things more interesting if Democrat superstars such as former President Barack Obama and/or Michelle Obama did some serious retail campaigning in this state for Espy.
From a national perspective, the stakes, of course, could be higher. While Republicans lost control of the House, their hold on the Senate was retained. The possibility had loomed that the Hyde-Smith – Espy runoff would decide control of the Senate, but Republicans will hold the Senate regardless of who wins in Mississippi.
In any event, voters will make state history the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. Cindy Hyde-Smith will be the first woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate from Mississippi or Mike Espy will be the first African-American since the years immediately following the Civil War.
Once again, there will be speculation. And once again the voters will tell us what’s what.
CHARLIE MITCHELL is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.