ESPY vs. HYDE-SMITH: Who will win the last seat in the U.S. Senate?

High stakes Senate campaign to be settled with Nov. 27 runoff

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The 2018 Midterm Elections are two weeks in the rearview mirror. A record turnout of voters nationwide gave control of the U.S. House of Representatives to the Democratic Party, while the GOP will narrowly retain control of the Senate.

How narrow that margin is will be settled next Tuesday, Nov. 27. That’s when Mississippi voters will return to the polls to elect either Democrat Mike Espy or Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith. The two candidates are in a runoff election to determine who will complete the remaining two years on the term of former Sen. Thad Cochran – and who will get to run as an incumbent in 2020.

The GOP will have at least 52 seats in the Senate – 53, if Hyde-Smith wins. However, if Espy can eke out enough votes, Democrats will hold 48 seats.

The high-stakes race has translated into a flurry of attack ads from both campaigns, as well as a parade of political heavyweights stumping to help win the last seat in the U.S. Senate.

How we got here

Mike Espy

Either candidate would make history – Espy would become the first African-American senator from Mississippi since Reconstruction; Hyde-Smith is seeking to become the state’s first woman elected to the Senate.

Earlier this year, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith to complete the rest of Cochran’s term. But the timing of Cochran’s retirement meant that not only would the Senate seat be on the November ballot, but that there would be no primary elections. Any candidate could run, and if he or she won more than 50 percent of the vote, the candidate would win the seat outright.

That was never likely to happen for two reasons. On the Democratic side, Espy was highly unlikely to capture a majority in a state that has overwhelmingly voted Republican for decades. On Nov. 6, Espy won 360,112 of the vote, or 40.6 percent.

Meanwhile, Hyde-Smith was competing for votes with another conservative candidate, Chris McDaniel. McDaniel had mounted a vigorous campaign against Cochran in 2014, but ultimately lost. McDaniel ran afoul of President Donald Trump, who eventually threw his support behind Hyde-Smith.

On Nov. 6, McDaniel won 16.5 percent of the vote – a strong showing, and enough to splinter the GOP ballot. Hyde-Smith won 368,536 votes for 41.5 percent of the total.

By simple political math, then, Espy faces a daunting task. McDaniel’s voters will almost certainly vote for Hyde-Smith. And in a campaign between a black man and a white woman, it seemed inevitable that race would become an issue.

That happened the weekend after the election.

Race enters the race

In Tupelo, while at a private fundraiser, Hyde-Smith proclaimed her admiration for a supporter by quipping: “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” The comment was caught on video and went viral, setting off a firestorm that thrust Mississippi’s painful past of public lynchings squarely into the race.

Hyde-Smith has said she meant no harm with the remark, saying it was “an exaggerated expression of regard” for a friend who invited her to speak. “Any attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous,” her statement said.

Hyde-Smith has also publicly stated that it would be good if it were “a little more difficult” for “liberal folk” to vote in Mississippi. Again, given Mississippi’s troubled history of suppressing the minority vote, more alarms were sounded.

“It was hurtful to Mississippians of good will who know better,” Espy said of the “hanging” remark. “But it was also harmful because it reinforced all these negative stereotypes — the stereotypes that I’ve been working all my life to try to overcome.”

Espy’s campaign also blasted Hyde for implying it should be harder for liberals to vote in Mississippi.

“For a state like Mississippi, where voting rights were obtained through sweat and blood, everyone should appreciate that this is not a laughing matter,” Espy campaign spokesman Danny Blanton said. “Mississippians deserve a senator who represents our best qualities, not a walking stereotype who embarrasses our state.”

Espy’s African problem?

Meanwhile, Hyde-Smith’s camp has begun hitting Espy over his business relationship with a now-deposed African leader.

Hyde’s campaign and a GOP campaign group have launched ads questioning whether Espy lied about his work for Ivory Coast ex-President Laurent Gbagbo, who is on trial at the International Criminal Court.

Federal registration papers show Espy was hired by the Cocoa and Coffee Board of the Ivory Coast from Jan. 1 to March 15 in 2011, collecting $750,000 before terminating the contract two weeks before its scheduled end.

“He lied because he said he canceled the contract and there’s evidence to the contrary that he did not,” Hyde-Smith campaign spokeswoman Melissa Scallan said Friday. “Also, that he was willing to have a contract with someone who is now on trial in international court is, I think, telling.”

On Fox News, Blanton defended Espy, saying Espy ended the contract after realizing his Ivory Coast client “didn’t pass the smell test.” Later, Blanton pointed back at Hyde-Smith’s earlier remarks.

“She’s trying to change the subject with a smear campaign against Mike,” Blanton said in a statement.

Trump was in Southaven to drum up support for sitting GOP Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, who was appointed to complete Sen. Thad Cochran’s term when he retired earlier this year. She faces stiff competition from Democrat Mike Espy. (Photo: Lee Eric Smith)

Heavy hitters

Political heavyweights from both parties have stepped up to stump for their candidates.

Trump, who rallied for Hyde-Smith in Southaven in September, is scheduled to appear in both Tupelo and on the Gulf Coast this weekend.

Meanwhile, potential presidential candidates Sen. Kamala Harris (D.-Calif) and former Vice President Joe Biden have vouched for Espy’s campaign.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker stumped for Espy in Hattiesburg, Miss., at the University of Southern Mississippi on Monday.

“We are America. And our country hangs in the balance right now,” Booker said in a fiery speech. “And the fulcrum for it is this election in Mississippi.”

Who will decide?

In an ordinary election year, Hyde-Smith would be the overwhelming favorite in ruby-red Mississippi. But this is no ordinary election year.

In fact, Mississippi has not had a statewide runoff at any time in recent memory. A statewide runoff would only occur in case of a special election, and Mississippi’s last special election was when Republican Roger Wicker won more than 50 percent of the vote to defeat Democrat Ronnie Musgrove.

“We have not had this situation occur in any recent general election,” said a Mississippi Secretary of State spokesperson in an email to The New Tri-State Defender.

But in any case, voter turnout drops drastically in runoff elections. Though not a statewide election, several nonpartisan judicial seats were on the 2016 ballot, which ultimately forced runoffs in those races.

In Desoto County, one of Mississippi’s fastest growing and most populous counties, John Brady’s 10,171 votes were enough to force a runoff with Bobby Chamberlin’s 31,953 votes in a race for a Northern District seat on the Mississippi Supreme Court. Total votes cast in the Nov. 8, 2016 general election: 54,740.

But only a fraction of those voters came out for the Nov. 29 runoff. Chamberlin handily won DeSoto County with 5,067 votes to Brady’s 353 votes, for a total of 5,420 votes cast in the race.

That means that while nearly 55,000 DeSoto voters cast ballots in that race in the general election, less than 5,500 voters actually decided who carried the county in the race for the coveted seat on the Mississippi Supreme Court.

Fast forward to this 2018 Senate Runoff. In DeSoto County, Hyde-Smith won 20,634 votes to Espy’s 16,922. McDaniel won 11,864, and Tobey Bartee won 673 votes, for a total of 50,093 votes. If DeSoto’s trends similarly in this runoff, a mere 5,000 total votes will determine who carries the county.

Then again, nothing has been normal in this political climate. Will McDaniel’s voters show up for Hyde-Smith? Will angry African American and political progressives rally behind Espy in opposition to Hyde-Smith’s racially charged comments? Will any of the momentum of the general election carry over?

Across Mississippi, about 887,000 people cast ballots in the U.S. Senate race.

But if voter turnout only hovers around 10 percent of the general election, that means the last seat in the U.S. Senate will be decided by less than 90,000 voters statewide.

And that underscores a theme that both campaigns can embrace: That every single vote counts.

(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)