Nearly a year ago, Democrats pulled off an upset in the South against a Republican candidate hobbled by controversy. Now, they’re hoping to duplicate that feat in Mississippi, in the last Senate election of the cycle.
Virtually no prognosticator has given the party much of a chance. But this past week, the Republican in the race, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS), has been caught twice making wild and insensitive remarks: the first expressing comfort attending a public hanging; the second openly musing about suppressing Democratic votes. All of which has encouraged the party to rethink whether the long shot Democrat in the race, former U.S. secretary of agriculture Mike Espy, is really that big a long shot at all.
“We believe it’s possible and shit—that’s kind of the motto of this race,” a Democrat directly familiar with the race, requesting to speak candidly on background, told The Daily Beast. “It’s hard, but we can do it.”
Despite Hyde-Smith’s recent gaffes, national Democrats so far remain content to keep a careful distance, borrowing from a strategy that panned out for them in Alabama last year. Officials in the party say that winning the race remains a tough task. The election takes place on November 27, days after Thanksgiving, in a state that President Trump won by nearly 18 points.
But they’ve been encouraged by Espy, who would be the state’s first African-American Democrat elected to the Senate and the first Democrat elected to the Senate since 1982. He captured 40.6 percent of the vote last Tuesday compared to Hyde-Smith’s 41.5 percent with Republican state senator Chris McDaniel earning another 16.5 percent. McDaniel, a controversial Tea Partier, has urged the Republican party to come together behind Hyde-Smith, but there’s uncertainty about whether his coalition will turn out again.
The other factor that adds a degree of unpredictability for both sides is the timing of the runoff, which comes three weeks after Election Day when voters already cast ballots for both of these candidates in a jungle primary. Both camps have spent time trying to remind voters that they have to actually come back to the polls.
“There’s never been an election on November 27, a couple days after Thanksgiving before,” said Joe Trippi, a top Democratic consultant who is working on the race. “We don’t know if it’s going to be 300,000 or a million,” he said of turnout.
National Democrats say that they want to adopt the “Doug Jones model” for Espy, referencing the approach they took to the Democratic Senate special election in Alabama last year. Sam Coleman, a former staffer for the Alabama senator is now working for Espy as is Trippi, a former adviser for Jones.
“It’s an uphill fight. It’s Mississippi,” Trippi told The Daily Beast, adding that like Alabama, which saw a contentious Republican primary, some voters who supported McDaniel might not come back to Hyde-Smith. “Just as Alabama was—we only won by 23,000 votes over there. But I think that this is in play. I think we proved that on Election Day on November 6. I don’t think anybody expected us to be in a dead heat with her.”
The national party, meanwhile, has made modest investments in Mississippi. But, mostly, they want to let Espy’s campaign run the show, if only to underscore his independence from the Democratic brand.
The Democratic National Committee has spent more than $556,000 investing in the state party and shoring up African-American organizers on the ground in historically black colleges and universities and faith communities. The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee is similarly focused on driving up African-American turnout, in a state with the highest percentage of black residents in the country, though officials with the committee would not disclose much else about their efforts at the moment.
“It’s a Mississippi race run by Mississippians,” Ben Ray, a senior adviser at the DSCC told The Daily Beast. “And we want them to win.”
There are some hints that this strategic distance may be fading, however. Major political figures in both parties are toying with the idea of campaigning in the state. President Trump, Politico reported, may hold a rally on the night before the runoff. Other national figures like Joe Biden do not have plans at this time to come down, according to a spokesperson for the former vice president, who said a visit was doubtful given the timing of the runoff and family commitments. But Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), a possible 2020 presidential candidate, is campaigning for Espy on Saturday.
And with just over a week left until the runoff, a flurry of ad buys have also begun. Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic group, invested $500,000 for their first buy in the state for an ad that will begin running on Friday targeting Hyde-Smith on health care. The National Republican Senate Committee has also made an ad buy to support Hyde-Smith and are expected to spend $1 million before the race is over. A spokesperson for the Senate Leadership Fund said the group is launching a TV and radio ad buy beginning on Friday of just over $1 million. The group’s ad campaign has a $130,000 digital component too.
All of that seemed like expensive formalities until this past week, when a remark from Hyde-Smith drew national focus to the race.
At a campaign event on November 2, Hyde-Smith praised a supporter and said "If he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row." The comment reopened old wounds in the state, where according to the NAACP, 581 African-Americans were lynched from 1882 to 1968 (the highest number in the country).
“That has just been really horrifying and our constituents have just been not only angry and saddened by the remarks but really in an uproar and have just said “we’ve got to really engage to make sure that she understands that her comments not only were hurtful but they were also racist,’” Cassandra Overton Welchlin, a co-convener of the MS Black Women’s Roundtable told The Daily Beast in an interview. Her organization, which focuses on civic engagement above and beyond electoral politics, has been focusing on drumming up turnout in the African-American community and educating voters about the importance of being involved.
Hyde-Smith released a statement over the weekend in which she addressed the comments but did not apologize for them. She then refused to expand on her statement at a subsequent media availability. Espy, who is dealing with his own controversies, called the remarks “hurtful and harmful” and has asked her to explain them further, which could likely happen when the two face off in a debate next Tuesday.
On Thursday, Hyde-Smith was caught again making questionable comments on video, endorsing the idea of making it harder for some “liberal folks” to vote. Her campaign once again downplayed the incident saying she was making a joke and the video was “selectively edited.” But nonpartisan observers agree that there’s now a degree of uncertainty in the race, especially as Hyde-Smith’s remarks could motivate the bases of both candidates.
“The last few days, you’ve seen a huge spike in advertisements and conversations and guest speakers and press releases,” Dr. Joseph “Dallas” Breen, the executive director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University told The Daily Beast. “It’s added a lightning rod to Mississippi elections. And it’s created a new opportunity for what most considered a pretty surefire likely Republican seat to at least have the attention put back on this election and the results.”