Mississippi: Avoiding Another Alabama

Sen. Thad Cochran (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)

The announced retirement of Thad Cochran (R-MS) from the Senate has created a unique opportunity for the Democratic Party.  Roger Wicker- the other Republican Senator from Mississippi- was up for reelection and his chances of reelection were never in doubt.  If anything, he faced more of a challenge from within his party than from the Democrats.

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant appointed state agriculture commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith to complete the term of Cochran when a special election coinciding with the 2018 November general election will take place.  That “special election” will be non-partisan meaning that party affiliation will not appear on the ballot and there will be no primary election to determine the party’s candidate.   In 2014, Cochran had to endure a runoff against Chris McDaniel to win the GOP nomination.  He benefited from heavy support from Mitch McConnell’s PAC.   With no primary in this election, we will have to wait and see where they spend money this year.

There are four candidates in the mix.  The aforementioned Hyde-Smith is running to complete the term and also the aforementioned Chris McDaniel on the GOP side.  On the Democratic side are former Obama Agriculture secretary Mike Espy and Tupelo mayor Jason Shelton.  Espy is the most noticeable of the two.  He is black and from a prominent Delta region family.  African-Americans make up the bulk of the Democratic Party in Mississippi.  With three viable candidates in the mix- Espy, McDaniel and Hyde-Smith, it is quite possible there will be a runoff if no one gets 50% of the vote.

No doubt, the Democratic Party feels emboldened by the victory of Doug Jones in neighboring Alabama.  Rest assured, the Democratic opposition research apparatus is working overtime on Mississippi Republicans.  However, Alabama was a whole other creature and Roy Moore, despite the onslaught of allegations, still ran a close race.  Absent that late-in-the-campaign notoriety, he would be a Senator today.

Further, Democrats are fighting an uphill battle in Mississippi which has not elected a Democratic Senator since 1982 when John Stennis defeated Haley Barbour.  There is not only history, but fundraising to consider.  In 2017, Jensen Bohren, a Democrat seeking Wicker’s seat, managed to raise $282 compared to Wicker’s $4.1 million.  In 2014, Democrat Travis Childers raised a respectable $670,000 to Cochran’s $10.4 million.

Besides the bad publicity surrounding Moore, what also is noteworthy is the incredible amount of money that poured into the state from outside Democratic and liberal sources.  One month before the election a PAC registered in Birmingham named Highway 31 spent $5.1 million in support of Jones.  Jones had been trying to distance himself from the national Democratic party going so far as to say he would not answer to Chuck Schumer (D-NY).  However, Highway 31 was nothing but a front for the national Democratic Party apparatus.  All but $10,000 they spent in favor of Jones came from three sources- the Democratic Senate Majority PAC, the Priorities USA Action PAC (which helped Obama in 2012 and Clinton in 2016) and which receives money from George Soros, and the League of Conservation Voters.

Although the Democratic Party may rail against so-called “dark money” in elections, they felt no remorse using it in Alabama.  Expect the same in Mississippi, especially if Espy emerges as one of the finalists if it comes down to a runoff.  The GOP would well-served to not take this race for granted because it is deep red Mississippi.  McConnell would be well-advised to butt out and let the voters of Mississippi decide the election.  To the extent he does get involved, then spreading the wealth is advised.

Mitch McConnell may have his differences with Chris McDaniel as was evident in 2014.  However, despite those differences, they are considerably less than the differences that would exist between Mitch McConnell and a Senator Espy.