There’s been a lot of talk about the Senate, specifically whether or not the Democrats can take the majority and what paths they can take to get there. All of the scenarios where the Senate turns blue require victories in both swing and red states. The good news is there’s a few different options, although with any of them things will need to break just right to make the climb to 51 seats.
There’s the straight forward result (hold all our seats and flip bluish Nevada and the open seat in purple Arizona).
There are the ‘candidate quality’ races in Texas and Tennessee, where a talented Congressman and respected former Governor are running serious challenges in red states. Both may be able to overcome the state’s Republican lean.
And there’s one relatively unheralded race worth watching: Mississippi’s special election.
There are two Senate races in Mississippi this year. Incumbent Roger Wicker is up for his normal reelection and is expected to win comfortably, though there hasn’t been much polling on the race. There’s also a special election for the other seat, which will be up again in 2020. Thad Cochran retired earlier this year due to health reasons, and appointee Cindy Hyde-Smith has only been in the Senate for a few months.
In addition, the race is on this year’s ballot in a very unusual format. The special election is what’s called a jungle primary, where all candidates (regardless of party) appear on one ballot together. If no one gets over 50% of the vote, there will be a runoff in three weeks between the top two finishers.
So who’s running? Sen. Hyde-Smith is on the ballot and slightly leading the polls at about 35-40%. Former Congressman and Cabinet secretary Mike Espy is the leading Democrat, also polling around 35%. State Sen. Chris McDaniel is a Freedom Caucus-type hardline conservative who’s support is in the 15 to 20% range, and Democrat and Navy veteran Tobey Bartee is another Democrat with about 2-4% support.
This is a race where the poll numbers should be taken with a spoonful of salt. Multi-candidate races are notoriously difficult, there haven’t been many polls total, and the most recent poll (see all here at FiveThirtyEight) is over a month old, has a smaller sample size, doesn’t have anyone above 30% and shows one in four voters as undecided.
In short, a lot of possibilities are on the table.
The conventional wisdom seems pretty straightforward. Mississippi is a conservative state and Sen. Hyde-Smith is a fairly conventional Republican nominee running on standard Fox News cultural talking points. If she gets the majority of the conservative vote and keeps McDaniel in the 15-20% range, she and Espy will advance to the runoff. There the assumption is McDaniel’s supporters stay on the Republican side and Hyde-Smith returns to D.C. for another 2 years.
It’s also very easy to make a compelling case for Espy’s chances.
Reasons for Optimism
This race isn’t getting the attention that it should as a potential flip. Let’s go through the reasons this seat is likely in play.
Mississippi is about 10 points more moderate then neighboring Alabama, where Democrats won a very high-profile race less than a year ago. Of course, Sen. Hyde-Smith is not comparable to Roy Moore as a candidate or human being.
For Espy, the hill to climb isn’t as steep in the Magnolia state as it was for Doug Jones next door.
Let’s break down the numbers: Mississippi is historically 15% more Republican then the country as a whole (Trump won here in 2016 by 17%). So in a completely neutral election, the Republicans should get about 57% of the vote and Democrats about 42%.
As we know by now, 2018 isn’t shaping up as a neutral year. Today the generic ballot is showing a Democratic edge between 8-9%, which is where it’s been most of the year.
There’s no reason to expect a recent appointee to have much of an incumbency advantage, especially when facing challenges from both the left and right. If these factors stay the same through Election Day, we’d expect Republicans to get about 53% of the vote and Democrats 46%.
Assuming McDaniel continues pulling at about 1/3 of Hyde-Smith’s support, we’d expect a result along these lines:
A Democrat getting the plurality on Election Day would be a moral victory, but those don’t wrap up Senate seats. The idea of moving forward to a runoff election at an odd time on the calendar could lead to an upset, and in fact would be almost exactly a year after the Alabama race.
In this situation, Espy would need support from Bartee voters in the runoff, but even that won’t be enough. He’ll need a turnout advantage, with McDaniel voters unlikely to support him but choosing to stay home instead of supporting Hyde-Smith, which is plausible.
In this situation, although he’d never say it, it’s in McDaniel’s best interest to see Espy pull off the win, because either way the seat will be up again in two years. He’s run unsuccessfully for Senate multiple times by challenging Republican incumbents in the primaries. If he doesn’t defeat Hyde-Smith on November 6th, running against a Democrat in 2020 with the presidential election race at the top of the ticket may be his best shot yet.
By simply qualifying for the runoff against either Republican, Espy has a reasonable opportunity to emerge victorious (he has a better chance if the more polarizing McDaniel somehow finished in the top two with him). But his best chance is probably to get to 50% on Election Day.
How does the Espy campaign bridge the gap from 40-42% to 50%+1? Turnout.
Mississippi’s voting eligible population is 37% African American, highest in the nation. Historically, African Americans have not voted as frequently as white Mississippi voters.
Just to put these numbers in perspective, there are over 800,000 eligible African American voters in Mississippi. Trump got 700,000 votes total in 2016, and Cochran got less than 400,000 votes last time this seat was up for grabs in 2014.
Comparing again to the Alabama special election last year, African Americans are about 26% of Alabama’s voting population but cast about 28% of the ballots. If the same ratio holds true in Mississippi this year, the African American vote would be 40% of the total. If Espy (both he and Bartee are African-American) wins well over 90% of that vote as we’d expect, that puts him around 37% of the total ballots cast.
Bartee has an impressive resume. He’s a young Navy veteran with a career in the Defense and State departments, and may be a rising star in Mississippi. But he hasn’t caught fire in this race, and if most of his current supporters end up switching to Espy, that could push him over the top.
If the higher African American turnout happens, Espy will only need one in five white voters to get to 50% of the total. President Obama only received about 10% of the white vote in Mississippi, but previous Democratic nominees have been at or above 20%, and even in the Deep South Trump’s popularity is wavering. If the African American turnout is high and strongly in Espy’s favor, there’s a real chance Mississippi could send an African American Democrat to the United States Senate.
Bookmark this race as one to watch.