Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith’s victory in Mississippi’s Senate election runoff was closer than usual in the GOP-dominated Deep South state. But she still was never really threatened by Democrat Mike Espy in Tuesday’s contest, which brought the state’s long history of racial politics into sharp relief.
Some takeaways as Hyde-Smith, who was initially appointed to succeed former Sen. Thad Cochran, returns to Washington as the first woman elected to represent Mississippi on Capitol Hill:
In the end, Hyde-Smith defeated Espy by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent — much closer than the cakewalk many predicted in a reliably red state that President Donald Trump won by 17 points in 2016. The contest was the latest reminder that race remains a potent factor in the region’s polarized partisan politics. Espy was seeking to become Mississippi’s first black senator since Reconstruction.
Ahead of the runoff, a video surfaced of Hyde-Smith praising a supporter by saying, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be right there on the front row.” For many black voters, the comment harkened back to the state’s dark past of lynchings during the Jim Crow era. They were galvanized by her remarks and saw their votes as a rejection of racism. Many whites dismissed accusations that Hyde-Smith’s comments were racist.
Her statement was widely seen as a dogwhistle, similar to comments made in Florida by then-Republican gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis, who warned voters not to “monkey up” the election by voting for Andrew Gillum, who lost his bid to become the state’s first black governor. It also echoed comments by President Donald Trump, who cast Gillum as incompetent and Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams as unqualified.
STRONG BLACK TURNOUT NOT ENOUGH
Black voters came out for Espy, but it wasn’t enough, given the overall makeup of Mississippi’s electorate and white voters’ overwhelming loyalty to Republicans, even among suburban whites who elsewhere nationally trended toward Democrats in the 2018 midterms.
Espy’s biggest challenge was simply that Mississippi doesn’t have a metro area comparable to Atlanta or Nashville, Tennessee, or Charlotte, North Carolina — growing population centers where white voters are considerably more likely to support Democrats than their counterparts in small towns.
Yet even in Mississippi counties that fit the suburban model — better educated, more affluent — voters stuck with Hyde-Smith. Her 71 percent in Rankin County and 54 percent in Madison County (both outside the Democratic stronghold of Jackson) put her just a few percentage points behind Trump’s 2016 marks in those counties.
That’s a contrast even to other recent Deep South elections.
In Georgia, Abrams lost the governor’s race by just 1.4 percentage points in no small part because she won large suburban counties like Cobb and Gwinnett in metro Atlanta. In Alabama’s 2017 Senate special election, Democratic Sen. Doug Jones capitalized on Republican Roy Moore’s weaknesses not by winning large suburban counties, but by vastly outperforming Democrats’ usual marks.
Espy’s almost 409,000 votes statewide was 84 percent of Hillary Clinton’s vote count against Trump in 2016. By comparison, Jones managed 92 percent of presidential turnout in his Alabama victory. In Georgia, Abrams actually exceeded Clinton’s 2016 mark. If Espy had managed that on Tuesday, he’d have won: Clinton got 485,131 votes. Unofficial returns show Hyde-Smith at 479,365.
SOME AFRICAN-AMERICAN GAINS
Despite the Democratic loss in the state’s marquee race, civil rights groups and grassroots organizers point to down-ballot gains, particularly in judicial contests. High black voter turnout elected two black women to the circuit court in Hinds County, giving the county an all-black bench for the first time ever, including three black women.
The wins mirror gains in Texas, where 19 black women were elected to judgeships earlier this month, and Alabama, where a record nine black women judges were elected in last year’s special election.
Down-ballot candidates and issues also benefitted from high black turnout this midterm cycle in Georgia — where Lucy McBath, a black woman, unseated incumbent Republican Rep. Karen Handel, flipping a seat once held by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — and in Florida, where voters supported restoring voting rights to tens of thousands of former felons.
With an increased focus on issues of criminal justice and voting rights, such victories could have more of an impact on voters’ daily lives.
Mississippi isn’t used to having backbencher senators. From 1947 to 2007, the state sent just four senators to Washington. It wasn’t long ago that Mississippi’s Senate team consisted of Cochran as chairman of the Appropriations Committee and Trent Lott as majority leader, both of them specializing in fast-tracking federal money back to their home state.
Now, the senior senator is Roger Wicker, who has been in office since Dec. 31, 2007, but will find himself behind more than a dozen Republican colleagues on the seniority list when Congress convenes in January. Hyde-Smith won’t be at the back of the line — her months as an appointed senator put her ahead of the GOP freshmen just elected in November — but she’s close.
Certainly, Washington is different than in Cochran’s prime, with budget earmarks no longer at the center of every negotiation. But for a small, economically disadvantaged state that’s long depended on federal influence, the 116th Congress will be new territory.
NO PERFECT FORMULA FOR SOUTHERN DEMOCRATS
Democrats have made key gains in recent elections in the South, but there’s no perfect formula for winning statewide.
Espy, a former Cabinet official under President Bill Clinton, ran as a moderate with experience reaching across the aisle. Georgia’s Abrams and Florida’s Gillum ran as unabashed liberals and nearly pulled out wins in governor’s races that would have been historic. Democrats in Alabama and South Carolina nominated white men — relatively young, relatively moderate — for governor.
All of them lost: Abrams and Gillum had narrow margins; Espy ran strong but wasn’t close; Alabama and South Carolina were the usual Republican routs.
The lesson: Candidates matter, but so does the electorate. The three closest races made the case that Democrats shoudn’t cede the South, and that tests of electability shouldn’t be limited to white men.
The next test comes in Georgia, where a Dec. 4 runoff for secretary of state pits Democrat John Barrow, a 63-year-old moderate former congressman, against a little-known Republican state lawmaker. After that, the focus shifts to Louisiana, where Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards will seek re-election in 2019 four years after upsetting his Republican rival, then-Sen. David Vitter.
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