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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

September 20: Mississippi Runoff Could Determine Control of the Senate–and Even the Supreme Court

Mississippi’s special election to replace Sen. Thad Cochran hasn’t gotten a lot of attention. But that could change in a big way, as I explained at New York:

In the various scenarios of what will happen to the Supreme Court if Brett Kavanaugh’s originally expected late-September confirmation runs off the rails, it’s obvious that a Democratic Senate takeover in November (which would take effect on January 3) would create a real crisis for conservative SCOTUS hopes….

But there is one scenario that’s especially fraught with uncertainty and peril. The odds are good that a special election in Mississippi for the seat currently held by appointed senator Cindy Hyde-Smith (and formerly held for forty years by Republican Thad Cochran, who resigned in ill health in March) will go to a runoff on November 27. At the moment, the election is a three-way battle between the incumbent, fiery conservative insurgent Chris McDaniel, and former congressman and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, a Democrat. If no one wins a majority of the vote on November 6, it’s runoff time, almost certainly between one Democrat and one Republican. And if control of the Senate hasn’t yet been determined at that point, every campaign operative in the country and every unspent dollar will flood into the Magnolia State for three weeks.

This particular race has settled down a bit in recent weeks. Initially, it looked like McDaniel, who lost to Cochran by an eyelash in 2014 (with a lot of help from crossover voting by Democrats), might ride his “anti-establishment true conservative” message past former Democrat Hyde-Smith and into a runoff with Espy. But Donald Trump’s “complete and total Endorsement” of the incumbent (who has a 100 percent pro-Trump voting record) in late August has taken a lot of the wind out of McDaniel’s sails. One internal Hyde-Smith poll in early August showed McDaniel trailing her by ten points. Other polls have shown her with an even larger lead.

If there’s a Hyde-Smith-Espy runoff, the incumbent will be favored, for sure; if McDaniel pulls the upset and makes the runoff, it’s anybody’s race. But either way, Espy is about as strong a candidate as Democrats could field in this red state. Back in 1986, he became the first African-American to represent Mississippi in Congress since Reconstruction, and burnished a centrist reputation before Bill Clinton appointed him Secretary of Agriculture. He was forced from that position by perhaps the least-well-regarded independent counsel investigation of the era, which eventually led to his speedy acquittal on charges of taking gifts from corporations with USDA business. It’s doubtful that this 20-year-old “scandal” will significantly harm Espy’s Senate hopes, but his party affiliation is definitely a problem in a state where no Democrat has won a Senate or gubernatorial race in this millennium.

Still, the last Senate special election, 2017’s contest in next-door Alabama, presented an even tougher landscape for Democrats. Roy Moore’s upset primary win over an appointed senator backed by Donald Trump has to be the inspiration for Chris McDaniel, a neo-Confederate who is nearly as notorious in Mississippi as Moore was in Alabama. And in the likely case of a runoff, Mississippi’s large African-American population would provide an even stronger base for Espy than Doug Jones could count on in winning his race.

It’s possible that Hyde-Smith could win without a runoff; that control of the Senate will be decided elsewhere; and that Anthony Kennedy’s SCOTUS seat will be filled before the deal goes down in Mississippi. But it’s also possible that for the second straight year, a special election in the Deep South will command everyone’s attention.

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