By Jim EllisNov. 27, 2018 — The 2018 election cycle’s final contest comes today in Mississippi. The special run-off campaign between appointed Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) and former US Agriculture Secretary and ex-Mississippi congressman, Mike Espy (D), will decide if the 116th Congress will feature a Senate that brandishes a 53-47 Republican majority or a lesser 52-48.
The run-off occurs because no candidate received an absolute majority in the Nov. 6 special jungle primary. The special election is necessary because Sen. Thad Cochran (R) resigned for health reasons in the middle of his final term in office, thus necessitating an appointed replacement and this confirming electoral vote for the winner to serve the balance of the term. Whether Sen. Hyde-Smith or Espy wins today, there will be another election in the regular 2020 cycle for the full six-year term.
In the first vote, Sen. Hyde-Smith placed first, but barely, with a 41.5 percent plurality compared to Espy’s 40.6 percent, a difference of 8,284 votes from more than 883,600 ballots cast. The third-place finisher, Tea Party activist state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R-Ellisville), captured the remaining 16.4 percent with Independent Tobey Bartee picking up the final 1.4 percent. Once the run-off began, Sen. McDaniel announced his support of Sen. Hyde-Smith, which should go a long way toward unifying her Republican base.
Controversy in this run-off campaign arose when Hyde-Smith made several unforced errors. Making statements about wanting to be present at a lynching, visiting a Confederate Museum where she donned a uniform, and now under attack for attending what was commonly referred to as a “segregation academy” for high school has put the appointed senator clearly on the defensive.
The controversy became worse when Hyde-Smith corporate PAC contributors Walmart, Union Pacific, Major League Baseball, Boston Scientific, Pfizer, Amgen, Leidos, and AT&T all asked for refunds in direct response to her comments.
On the flip side, Sen. Hyde-Smith is hitting the airwaves with commercials featuring President Trump, in ads that Great America PAC is running, along with campaign sponsored spots starring Gov. Phil Bryant (R) and NFL Hall of Fame quarterback and Mississippi native Brett Favre. The president is also conducting two rallies for her, one in Tupelo, and the other in the Gulf Coast city of Biloxi.
Sen. Hyde-Smith’s other ads emphasize her conservative issue positions and draw a clear ideological contrast between she and Espy. The Senate Leadership Fund is also airing a spot that revisits the federal public corruption charges brought against Espy when he was President Clinton’s Agriculture Secretary. The ad fails to mention that he was not convicted.
For his part, Espy is going on offense regarding Sen. Hyde-Smith’s comments, calling for unified hard work to overcome Mississippi’s stereotypes, the state’s often characterized poor image, and wanting to move the region forward economically so young people will want to stay home because of new existing job opportunities.
Polling has been sparse. A pre-election survey from Marist College (Oct. 13-18; 511 likely Mississippi voters) found Sen. Hyde-Smith leading a proposed run-off between she and Espy, 50-36 percent.
Now, a just-released follow-up survey from JMC Analytics along with the Bold Blue Campaigns consulting firm (Nov. 19-21 & 24; 684 likely Mississippi voters) projects Hyde-Smith to a 54-44 percent lead over Espy. This poll is obviously more significant because not only is it timelier but was conducted after the controversial comments became a dominant news story.
As is the case in all special elections, turnout will be the determining factor. Republican and conservative turnout will be key, since they dominate the state. The definitive questions remain as to whether enough of the Hyde-Smith coalition will participate to off-set what will likely be an energized Espy alliance, or will the GOP give away yet another contest that they should easily secure.