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Democrats have a legitimate shot to win the Mississippi Senate race

Chris McDaniel, Cindy Hyde-Smith and Mike Espy: the Mississippi Senate race, explained.

Mississippi Senate candidate Chris McDaniel.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

This year’s unlikeliest competitive Senate race might be Mississippi.

There, in the Deep South, 80-year-old Republican Sen. Thad Cochran retired after four decades in the Senate. He was replaced by a new senator, Cindy Hyde-Smith, appointed by Gov. Phil Bryant, who had been in close contact with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as it became clear that Cochran’s health would not allow him to serve much longer. Cochran’s seat will now be on the ballot in November — and hard-right conservatives have had their eye on Mississippi for months.

Could it be Alabama all over again?

Conservative insurgent Chris McDaniel, a former state senator with ties to the neo-Confederate movement, was prepared to primary Mississippi’s other Republican senator at Steve Bannon’s urging. But now he’s running for Cochran’s open seat.

McDaniel already challenged Cochran in a bitterly contested 2014 Republican primary — it involved a break-in and a suicide — and to this day, his supporters contend that election was stolen from him in part because many of the black voters in the state lined up behind Cochran.

But even if Hyde-Smith prevails over McDaniel among Republicans, as recent polls suggest she would, Democrats could still make the race competitive. A new poll conducted for Y’all Politics, a well-read conservative news site in the state, showed McDaniel significantly behind Hyde-Smith — and found Hyde-Smith leading the top Democrat in the race, former congressman Mike Espy, by just six points.

“Mississippi is a red state, but I think most people would be surprised to learn that [John] McCain only won the state by 13 points and [Mitt] Romney by 12. It is actually substantially less red than Alabama,” Sean Trende, an elections analyst at RealClearPolitics, told me in an email. When you add it all up, Mississippi is a “lighter load than Alabama.”

Then you have the Trump factor. For now, the president has refused to back Bryant’s choice for the Cochran seat. Mississippi’s Senate race should be a familiar drama — the establishment versus the far-right wing, McConnell versus Bannon, with a credible Democrat waiting to run against whoever makes it out alive.

Chris McDaniel versus the Republican establishment, explained

First things first: The Mississippi race will be a jungle primary. That means every candidate runs in the first race on Election Day in November. If one candidate gets 50 percent of the total vote, they win. But if they don’t — and it seems unlikely, with a strong Democratic candidate and a fractured GOP field — the top two candidates face each other in a runoff election that same month. (One of them could be the Democrat Espy — whom we’ll get to in a bit.)

McDaniel was originally going to challenge Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, a favorite target of alt-right mastermind and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon. McDaniel had discussed his Wicker challenge with Bannon before announcing, Mississippi Today reported last fall, and his potential candidacy had received favorable coverage from Breitbart, Bannon’s former employer. But McDaniel switched over to the open Cochran race after the senator said he would step down in April.

It probably doesn’t make much difference to Bannon, who clearly sees Mississippi as fertile ground for the alt-right populist revolution he is still trying to get off the ground.

“Mitch McConnell is a literal anchor tied to the hips of folks like Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran,” Andy Surabian, a Bannon adviser, told NBC News last fall. “We expect the anti-establishment wave we are seeing across the country today to hit Mississippi like a tsunami in 2018 and beyond.”

Bryant’s pick to replace Cochran on April 1 was Cindy Hyde-Smith, the state’s agriculture commissioner. She is Mississippi’s first woman senator.

McDaniel had once upon a time lobbied Bryant to name him as Cochran’s replacement, the Washington Post reported, but the governor was not interested.

There is a lot of bad blood between McDaniel and the Republican establishment, left over from the 2014 primary. Bryant even took a swing at McDaniel after the state senator announced he would switch from the Wicker to the Cochran race.

“This opportunistic behavior is a sad commentary for a young man who once had great potential,” Bryant told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.

The newspaper reported that Bryant was looking for a candidate who was particularly well suited to beating McDaniel. The governor settled on Hyde-Smith, but the White House and Washington Republicans weren’t exactly on board with that choice. Politico reported that Trump won’t campaign for or endorse Hyde-Smith because the White House is worried her history as a Democrat (she switched parties in 2010) could make her vulnerable. McDaniel, right on cue, has already begun attacking Hyde-Smith for her past in the other party.

The most recent polling suggests Hyde-Smith is building a substantial advantage over McDaniel, though. The Clarion Ledger reported this week that Espy and Hyde-Smith were pulling away from the rest of the field based on the Y’all Politics survey of the race:

  • Democrat Mike Espy: 33.1 percent
  • Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith: 33 percent
  • Republican Chris McDaniel: 12.8 percent
  • Democrat Jason Shelton: 6.2 percent

(Another recent poll, commissioned by Espy’s campaign, found the Democrat and Hyde-Smith as the top two candidates, though McDaniel had a stronger showing at 21 percent.)

The establishment is hellbent on stopping McDaniel and they might be succeeding. Which brings us back to 2014.

Let’s remember how absolutely surreal the 2014 campaign was

McDaniel has to be taken seriously because he mounted a very credible challenge against Cochran in 2014. Let’s start with the math: In the first round of the GOP’s jungle primary that year, McDaniel actually got more votes (49.5 percent) than Cochran (49 percent); a man named Thomas Carey got the remaining votes. But McDaniel did not get the needed 50 percent, so he and Cochran had a rematch.

In that showdown, Cochran narrowly prevailed over McDaniel, 51 percent to 49 percent, but not without a lot of bitterness and allegations of wrongdoing on both sides.

But those are the vote totals. That’s not the memorable part. In brief — and to understand why Bryant and other establishment Republicans are so hell-bent on beating McDaniel this year — here is your unofficial rundown of the 2014 Mississippi primary, courtesy of Talking Points Memo:

  • A 26-year-old blogger and McDaniel supporter nicknamed “Constitutional Clayton” broke into the nursing home where Cochran’s wife resides and took pictures of her for an attack ad accusing the senator of infidelity with one of his aides.
  • That blogger later went to jail for the break-in conspiracy. On a more tragic note, one of his alleged conspirators killed himself during the investigation.
  • Chuck Johnson, the infamous conservative raconteur, accused the Cochran campaign of bribing black voters to support the senator.
  • Johnson was later investigated by the Mississippi attorney general for his report and allegations that he actually bribed a source of the accusations he made against Cochran.
  • But after the election, the McDaniel campaign did file a lawsuit accusing the Cochran camp of soliciting Democratic votes, which they said would invalidate the results. The suit was eventually rejected by the state Supreme Court.

In other words, the McDaniel campaign tried to use the specter of black voters to delegitimize an election result — a problematic tactic, to say the least, given the state senator’s history of racially charged remarks.

The 2014 race is still a sore point for everybody involved. Just this year, McDaniel said:

“What I have is a situation in which I’m running for the same seat I ran for in 2014 — the seat we felt we won in 2014. Now God had other plans for that, obviously, and that’s okay and we accept that. All I’m asking for now is to be allowed to finish that term that we ran for in 2014.”

And that explains equally well, on the establishment side of the equation, why Bryant and other Republican leaders are so intent on defeating McDaniel again. McDaniel and his supporters had maligned Cochran, a titan of Mississippi Republican politics, and deployed dirtier-than-dirty tactics to try to unseat him.

The hypothetical path for another Democratic win in the Deep South

All of this leads to a pretty serious opening for Democrats. So who is the Democrat in this race?

Former Democratic Rep. Mike Espy — who comes with some of his own baggage after being acquitted of bribery charges in the 1990s — has already announced that he will run for Cochran’s seat with the backing of Democrats in the state. The 64-year-old represented the Jackson area in Congress for six years before serving as President Bill Clinton’s secretary of agriculture from 1993 to 1994.

But he was forced to step down amid an ethics investigation. Allegations were made that he improperly received airplane and sports tickets. Espy was eventually acquitted on all charges, but it more or less ended his career in politics; he has been out of public office for nearly 25 years, spending the past decade as a private attorney.

Espy looks likely to lock up one of the spots for the runoff election. That means the initial vote will function as a quasi-Republican primary: The top two GOP candidates will be vying to come in first or second and earn the right to face Espy. And with Democratic turnout up all around the country, that could put Espy on the map in a real way.

“I think against a more traditional Southern Republican, you get maybe something that looks like the presidential numbers, tightened a bit for turnout,” Trende told me.

To his point: for now, according to the Y’all Politics poll, Hyde-Smith is leading with 42 percent of the vote to Espy’s 36 percent.

If Hyde-Smith holds onto her lead over McDaniel, she has to be considered the favorite against Espy in the runoff. Maybe things will be a little closer than usual. It could get even more competitive if Espy runs a strong campaign or if the national environment becomes even worse for Republicans.

If McDaniel were to win and face Espy in a one-on-one runoff, things start to get really interesting. The poll cited by the Clarion Ledger found the Democrat with a 43 percent to 24 percent lead over McDaniel.

Espy certainly starts with some challenges: He could have lost his skills in retail politics, he might not be adept at fundraising, etc. But if he shows up in game shape, he could have some real advantages in Mississippi against McDaniel.

The conservative candidate has a troubling list of, shall we say, racially charged rhetoric and affiliating with more openly racist people:

  • He spoke at a neo-Confederate conference in 2013.
  • He recently appeared on a radio show with a host who traffics in anti-Semitic 9/11 conspiracies.
  • He has blamed “hip-hop” for gun violence, saying that it is “morally bankrupt” and destroys community values,
  • TPM had a long rundown in 2014 of McDaniel’s various remarks about reparations and “mamacitas.”

With some solid fundraising and spending, Espy could turn out more black voters — already about one-third of the state’s electorate — and he could then bring the race down to single digits, Trende told me.

“At that point, you’re really not talking about convincing that many whites to either state home or vote Democrat because of McDaniel’s racialized statements,” he said.

Espy, it should be noted, said kind words about Cochran as he announced his candidacy, and the Clarion-Ledger wrote that Espy has long been considered the model for the kind of black candidate who could win crossover white voters in Mississippi.

We’re a long way from an Alabama-style upset coming to fruition in its neighbor state. But the state may have the right ingredients.

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