Four weeks from today, Americans will go to the polls in the mid-term elections.
Mississippi has two US Senate seats on the ballot. The regularly occurring Senate election involving incumbent Senator Roger Wicker and his opponent, David Baria, does not appear to hold much suspense. Historically speaking, a 10 point victory in a statewide race is a butt-whooping. Expect one in that contest.
The special election to replace Senator Thad Cochran holds some suspense inasmuch as it’s just a very different political reality for Mississippians for a US Senate seat, and it has a few more variables. The special election will feature appointed Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, Mike Espy, Chris McDaniel and Tobey Bartee all on one ballot without partisan identification. If no candidate gets 50%+1 on the first ballot, a runoff will be held three weeks later between the top two vote getters.
What’s at stake?
What’s at stake for both Mississippi and the country at large is a bit of a moving target. A week ago, control of the US Senate seemed substantially more in play. But in the wake of the Kavanaugh confirmation, Trump and Republicans nationally seemed to have regained their footing a bit. While that’s always subject to change in this political environment, having Republicans retain the Senate now seems more likely than it did a week ago. Seats in North Dakota, Tennessee, and Missouri show substantially more promise than they did 2-3 weeks ago. At one point, even Texas was polling in doubt. That seems to have normalized. However, the US House appears to remain very much up for grabs as suburban swing seats in traditionally blue states like California and Pennsylvania may trend against Trump and the Republicans.
In Mississippi, there seems to be precious little suspense as all four of the Congressional seats will likely retain their same party affiliation – all by a comfortable margin.
50 & 51
Focusing the lens in Mississippi, because this is a special election, it is quite likely that the special election runoff will be the last US Senate seat decided. Should that seat be the 50th or 51st Republican vote, all bets are off.
The implications for the Mississippi seat being 50th Republican seat are pretty obvious. That’s for straight up control of the US Senate. The Vice President breaks the tie. If Democrats hold a 50-49 edge with the Mississippi seat up for grabs, the three weeks in November will be unlike anyone in Mississippi could be prepared for. Both parties would spend millions, deploy hundreds of political operatives and fill the airwaves as literally the balance of national power would be in play.
The implications for the Mississippi seat being the 51st Republican vote is not quite as obvious, but almost as significant. If Republicans hold a 50-49 edge after November 6, theoretically, they could still lose the Mississippi seat and still retain control. However, under a 50-50 tie, the Vice President must be available to break ALL ties including quorum calls. The practical implications would be that without a 51st vote, the Vice President would be chained to the US Capitol while the Congress is in session simply to be a tiebreaker at all times. The 51st vote would be huge to the Trump Administration and you can bet that they’d stop at nothing to convert that vote in the special election runoff.
In either of these scenarios it’s likely that Republican and Democratic operatives from across the country will be on planes to Mississippi on November 8. Expect lots of political operatives and national reporters with funny accents mispronouncing county names like Amite, Lafayette and Oktibbeha. Both the 50 and 51 scenarios are what the Espy camp needs to have a real shot.
The Mike Espy campaign is in a pretty strange spot. Given that the DNC and the Democrat Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) are fighting for endangered incumbents in close races across the county, they’ve spent almost zero time or energy in Mississippi. They see Mississippi as a longshot for Democrats. Though no one seems capable of admitting it publicly, they’ve left Espy to essentially fend for himself. Given the dysfunction of the state Democrat party, fundraising efforts have been pretty anemic. Espy has spent a fair amount of time in DC and has raised some money, but it hasn’t been difference making money for his campaign. As of the last fundraising deadline, Espy had raised a little over $300K with Espy’s own money at about $111K of that. That stands in contrast to his most likely runoff opponent, Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, who had raised $1.4MM+ and had another superPAC raise another $500K for her benefit.
FEC reports for the period ending October 1 will be available in a few days and will yield a great deal more information.
There are three groups currently running TV ads in Mississippi right now in the special election race. The Hyde-Smith campaign, the MS Victory Fund superPAC (anti-McDaniel/pro Hyde-Smith) and the National Assn of Realtors (running ads for Hyde-Smith). To have a major party US Senate candidate (Espy) not run/fund a single meaningful network TV ad buy within a month of an election is a completely strange dynamic. There’s really no historic path that says that a Democrat can win with social media and light radio buys. That said, he’s still running a respectable race.
President Trump’s unequivocal endorsement of Hyde-Smith seems to have solidified the short-term political order of things for Republicans.
Honored to have @realDonaldTrump's COMPLETE and TOTAL endorsement in Mississippi's race for U.S. Senate. Make no mistake — a vote for me is a vote for Donald Trump, and you can count me to help this President put #AmericaFirst! #MAGA #TeamCindy #Cindy2018 pic.twitter.com/fhHBKTfGWc
— Cindy Hyde-Smith (@cindyhydesmith) October 3, 2018
Trump’s endorsement has completely shut off any funding for Chris McDaniel from third party money groups that he enjoyed support from in 2014. There appears to be zero appetite to put any money to work here for Espy or anyone else, until after November 6 and then only if it would have any meaning on the national stage.
In the meantime, Espy seems to be cocooning. He’s dutifully trying to raise money in spite of the utter lack of support he’s getting from Democrats nationally. He has real staff deployed. The statewide and national media is doing everything they can do for Espy. His playbook seems to be the “Doug Jones” model, except he lacks campaign funds for GOTV and an opponent who was accused of heinous sex crimes. Espy’s hosted some national figures like Cory Booker, Deval Patrick and Eric Garcetti.
I spent this past weekend in MS and OK, meeting mayors like @DavidFHolt and rallying behind candidates like @EspyForSenate, @DrewForOklahoma, @DBaria, and @HornForCongress. In every single state, vote by vote, seat by seat, we're taking our country back. #EGinMSOK pic.twitter.com/Y5lJ8wGd8j
— Eric Garcetti (@ericgarcetti) October 9, 2018
Truthfully, the Democrats that have come to Mississippi to campaign for Espy are much more likely thinking about their own potential 2020 Democratic Presidential primary than the results of an Espy election this year. There’s very little evidence that those visits have moved the needle.
In any event, Espy’s strategy now appears to be clearly to retrench and spend as little money as possible and lean on his name/party ID and hope specifically that Democrat voters can deliver him a runoff spot and pray that the race dynamics yield an outcome that (1) miraculously pits him against a more polarizing Chris McDaniel and (2) gives the seat actual significance nationally thus solving his seemingly intractable funding issue.
Basic math and Mississippi’s partisan demographics means with one well known Democrat and two well known Republicans, Espy should be safe in assuming there will be a run-off and he has his ticket punched for it, possibly even in first place on the 11/6 ballot. The closest corollary is the 2015 First Congressional District Special Election in which Republicans divided the field and a Democrat placed first. So, he is predictably marshaling what few resources are at his disposal for that run-off. His challenge is, unless McDaniel is his opponent, Mississippi is likely to go Republican in the run-off, again not unlike the 2015 First Congressional District Special Election Run-Off.
All of that said, Mississippians at this point don’t appear substantially energized. Looking at indicators like fundraising, advertising, primary results, and polling, Mississippi voters appear to be sleepwalking a bit heading into the home stretch. Of course, something could snap and change that at any time. But at this current trend, I would anticipate a relatively low voter turnout on 11/6, even by midterm standards.
But Mississippians who want to know how what the election dynamics in late November will be should be paying more attention to what is happening across the US Senate map over the next four weeks. That will tell the tale.