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Mississippi senate election runoff: Mike Espy hoping for a Doug Jones-style upset over Cindy Hyde-Smith

An Espy win would prove that the anti-Trump tide that cost the GOP the House is now lifting Democratic boats in states even more conservative than Alabama.
Appointed U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., right, and Democrat Mike Espy shake hands following their televised debate in Jackson, Mississippi on Nov. 20, 2018.Rogelio V. Solis / Pool via AP

President Donald Trump did not have time to visit buried veterans in Arlington Cemetery on Veteran’s Day, but he’ll be in Elvis Presley’s birthplace the Monday after Thanksgiving in an attempt to shore up the stumbling runoff campaign of incumbent Republic Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith.

With a racially insensitive wisecrack about public hanging (Democratic opponent Mike Espy is black), Hyde-Smith put back in play what once looked like an assured seat in the heart of Trump’s Dixie base. Her opponent, the secretary of agriculture under President Bill Clinton, attacked Hyde-Smith during their debate on Tuesday, claiming her comments are about “another blackeye for Mississippi.” WalMart also decided to withdraw its financial support for the senator, who was appointed six months ago to replace the retiring Thad Cochran. With the runoff slated for Nov. 27, a photograph of Hyde-Smith wearing a Confederate cap has cast further doubt on her racial views.

With a racially insensitive wisecrack about public hanging (Democratic opponent Mike Espy is black), Hyde-Smith put back in play what once looked like an assured seat in the heart of Trump’s Dixie base.

The much-awaited televised debate proved to be a walking-on-eggshells experience for both of the nervous candidates. The incumbent’s main message was that voters should go to to get tickets to a 5 p.m. election-eve rally in Tupelo, home of the Presley birthplace museum, and an 8 p.m. rally in Biloxi, a coastal gambling resort, on Nov. 26. Espy hammered at her record on health care and depicted her as rooted in the state’s racist past. Neither candidate scored a knockout. Hyde-Smith focused on “conservative Mississippi values” as defined by Trump. Espy’s performance, while competent, came short of the obvious breakthrough that would provide a needed turnout boost.

The White House and Mississippi Republicans are laboring to make these Trump trips look like something other than a rescue mission. Indeed, a come-from-behind victory by Espy would be historic on two scores. First, he would be the first black Mississippi senator since Reconstruction. Clearly, Espy is trying to duplicate the watershed victory scored by Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama last December, when crossover voters in usually Republican suburbs ignored Trump’s last-ditch on behalf of accused pedophile Roy Moore.

An Espy win would also prove that the anti-Trump tide that cost the president’s party control of the House of Representatives on November 6 is now lifting Democratic boats in states even more conservative than Alabama. But Trump’s chances of rallying his core believers is better in heavily rural Mississippi than it was in Alabama, where Republican women in the affluent suburbs of Birmingham, Montgomery, Huntsville and Tuscaloosa were a key contingent of Jones’ 21,000 vote margin.

The conventional wisdom in Mississippi is that the race has tightened but Espy will fall short of the 25 to 30 percent of white voters Democratic strategists think he needs to win. Curtis Wilkie, a veteran Boston Globe political reporter now teaching journalism at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, says polls have detected no GOP suburban crossover movement in Mississippi. It may also be difficult for Espy to get Obama-like turnout numbers in black precincts, another factor in Jones’ victory. “I’ve characterized Mike Espy’s chances as those of having to draw to an inside straight,” Wilkie said. If disinterested Republicans stay home because of the odd timing of the election that could help Espy, said Wilkie, but Mississippi’s white Republicans have not historically not been willing to cross over to vote for black Democrats.

Another (admittedly biased) Mississippi expert, former Republican Sen. Trent Lott, argued the Trump visit will in fact inoculate the GOP against apathy. "That's why Trump's coming in," he told Politico. Trump “will get massive attention, and it will really make people aware this election is a week from this coming Tuesday and it's big, so don't forget to come out and vote.'"

Joe Trippi, the architect of Jones’ victory in Alabama and a consultant for the Espy campaign, discussed the race with unusual candor. “I think we’re behind but it’s very low single digits,” he told me. “I think it’s going to be 52 to 48 or can we eke it out by 23,000, the way Doug Jones did in Alabama? I definitely think it’s going to be a tight thing.” Turnout is going to be the biggest factor, but he argued that the timing of Hyde-Smith’s stumbles can only help the Espy campaign. “Her gaffes have her coming down and we’re coming up.”

As in Alabama, Trippi said, a split in the Republican ranks is helping the Democrat. Supporters of Hyde-Smith’s primary opponent, State Senator Chris McDaniels, are sulking. Moreover, the Republican nominee is a lackluster personality who does not inspire Trump-like devotion. So could Trump’s appearances the day before the election add a jolt of enthusiasm, as Lott claimed? Not necessarily. “That really helped Roy Moore in Alabama,” Trippi said dryly. “It’s an unknown. I don’t know if he can come down and get people excited about her.”

Hyde-Smith is certainly not distancing herself from the president. In fact, her use of weaponized, dog-whistle rhetoric echoes Trump’s own style. In addition to the public hanging comment, Hyde-Smith also seemed to embrace voter suppression, which has a sordid history of black disfranchisement, after saying the state should make it harder for “liberal folks” to vote. (Hyde-Smith said she was joking.)

When Espy tried to attack her as a relic of a bygone era on Tuesday night, she responded with a Trump-style apology to “anyone who was offended” and cast herself as the wronged party whose words had been “twisted” to make her appear racist. For his part, Espy seemed unsettled when she brought up a $750,000 lobbying fee he received by suspect sources in the Ivory Coast cocoa industry.

All in all, the debate ended in something of a tie after Espy failed to mount an energetic, sustained attack on her as a throwback to segregationist times. After the holiday break, "factor x" becomes Trump’s visit, and whether it will energize Mississippi’s usual Republican majority — or provoke enough backlash to jolt Mississippians into an Alabama-like, bi-racial and bi-partisan push for the Democratic challenger.