Less than a month has passed since a round of runoff elections officially set the stage for what pundits are expecting to be the most competitive statewide political races in modern history.

Even though the campaigns have been relatively quiet, the races also have a chance to make history.

After becoming the first Mississippi woman to serve in Congress, Cindy Hyde-Smith, the former state agriculture commissioner whom Gov. Phil Bryant appointed to the the U.S. Senate this spring, has a chance to become the first woman Mississippi voters send to Capitol Hill.

First, Hyde-Smith, who has the backing of the old guard, will have to beat back challenges from state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who came within a hair of knocking off powerful Sen. Thad Cochran in 2014, and former cabinet Secretary Mike Espy.

Muscling for the conservative mantle between McDaniel and Hyde-Smith, could also open up a lane for Espy, a former Congressman who served as the nation’s first African American agriculture secretary under President Bill Clinton, if black voters are energized.

The presence of another stronger-than-normal Democratic contender in state Rep. David Baria, who is challenging Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, could provide even more incentive for the parties to rally their bases.

In the run up to November, several key questions will determine whether this will be the same kind of ho-hum campaign Mississippi has grown accustomed or whether November 2018 will truly be a once-in-a-generation kind of historic Election Day.

Do the Chris McDaniel faithful still have their fire?

Although he lost to Sen. Thad Cochran in a runoff, state Sen. Chris McDaniel exposed a deep fracture within the Mississippi Republican Party in 2014.

In some ways a harbinger of the anti-establishment movement later seen during the 2016 presidential election, McDaniel tapped into a base of conservative citizens in Mississippi who had long felt cheated by politicians and underrepresented in Washington.

“McDaniel’s campaign ushered in a new era of conservative grassroots politics and helped cement an anti-establishment wave that continues to bludgeon the Republican Establishment,” conservative pundit Erick Erickson wrote in a 2018 book about McDaniel’s 2014 campaign called “Remember Mississippi.”

McDaniel catapulted onto the national political scene in 2014 when he received more votes than Cochran in the Republican primary but failed to gain a majority of votes. What ensued was a bitter three-week runoff that Cochran won amid allegations — mostly from McDaniel and his supporters — that Democratic crossover voters swayed the election, with the help of the Republican establishment.

McDaniel never conceded to Cochran and spent months challenging the election results in court to no avail. He has spent the months since the loss maintaining and building his base of Mississippi voters who say they are fed up with Washington’s power structure – the same sentiment credited with vaulting Donald Trump to the White House in 2016.

Because of that support McDaniel garnered in 2014, the state’s establishment Republican leaders are working on neutralizing his challenge without alienating his base of GOP voters.

“Chris is an extraordinarily talented politician. He obviously has a message that resonates with people, and we’ll see what happens over the course of the next several months,” said Lucien Smith, chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party.

“One thing that I remind people of – especially folks in the various patriot groups like the tea party – is that I think they are an important force in Mississippi politics,” Smith continued. “I think they’ve had an important influence at the Capitol, and I think we agree on most issues. I look forward to working with them and everybody who wants good, conservative government to make sure we win in 2018 and in 2019.”

McDaniel is now running for the same Senate seat that he said as late as early 2018 that “we felt we won in 2014,” against Hyde-Smith as well as Espy.

The way McDaniel handled the loss may have moved him out of the good graces of many of the same Republicans who supported him in 2014. Several elected officials and political outsiders who endorsed McDaniel in 2014 have endorsed Wicker in 2018.

The polarizing feelings McDaniel surfaced in 2014 are still felt this year, although the size and scope of those feelings has been difficult to quantify to date.

McDaniel’s base is particularly outspoken on Facebook, which is the medium by which the conservative candidate has communicated most since the 2014 loss. Nearly 210,000 people like McDaniel’s campaign Facebook page, and his several-times-a-day posts routinely earn thousands of interactions a pop.

Can Hyde-Smith fight on two fronts?

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith is in a complicated position, sitting between the uber-conservative McDaniel and the moderate-liberal Espy.

The three face a lesser-known fourth candidate, Democrat Tobey Bartee of Gautier.

To date, Hyde-Smith has touted her conservative values and paired herself with President Donald Trump to offset many of the attacks lobbed her way by McDaniel, also a vocal Trump backer.

“As your Senator, I’ve tried to do what’s right for Mississippi,” Hyde-Smith tweeted in July. “America faces tough challenges, like securing our borders, making our military stronger, and reducing the debt. I’m working with @realDonaldTrump to be part of the solution!”

“It’s an exciting time to be a conservative!” another Hyde-Smith tweet in July read. “@realDonaldTrump has kept his promise to nominate qualified constitutionalists to SCOTUS—and I stand with our president 100%. I look forward to supporting Judge (Brett) Kavanaugh’s confirmation!”

“Chris McDaniel claims to be conservative, but looking at BIPEC’s 2018 Report Card, it’s clear he does not have the courage to vote his own convictions. Sen. Hyde-Smith is a proven leader with a record of working with Pres. Trump,” a June tweet from Hyde-Smith’s campaign Twitter account reads.

Mike Espy, candidate for U.S. Senate

But so far, Hyde-Smith has not publicly done much to counter Espy’s message of reaching across the aisle and transcending party labels.

“That’s a role the party can and will play,” Smith said when asked when the Hyde-Smith’s pivot to Espy should occur. “The best thing for the Republicans to do is focus on why they want to be in office. They have to make their own campaign decisions. We’re going to remind people of what happens if you elect a Democrat in November.”

McDaniel’s attacks on Hyde-Smith have been loud and regular: Cindy Hyde-Smith was a Democrat until 2010; she isn’t conservative enough; she was hand-picked by the GOP establishment — he has said on social media and in interviews.

To counter, Hyde-Smith has relied on pairing herself with President Trump and championing GOP legislative priorities on the campaign trail. She has raised more money than any candidate in her race, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has spent more than $1 million on television ads boosting her candidacy.

What remains to be seen is how and when she will counter Espy’s message. Espy, for his part, has been relatively quiet, just recently buying up some digital advertisements and beginning to make public appearances, like last weekend at Jackson’s Black Rodeo.

How strong is the Bennie Machine?

The Democrats running in the two U.S. Senate elections this November will depend on strong support from Mississippi’s African American community – something Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Bolton, has had for the past 25 years.

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson speaks with reporters prior to the Friends of Mississippi Civil Rights gala Friday, Feb. 23, 2018 in Jackson. Credit: Rogelio V. Solis, Associated Press

Thompson has represented the predominantly black 2nd District in the U.S. House since 1993 and is the state’s highest profile African American elected official.

Yet, at times he has been viewed as not vested in the success of other Mississippi Democrats, and at other times it seemed that perhaps some of those other Democrats have not been interested in garnering the support of Thompson – at least not publicly.

Sitting at a conference table in his district office in tiny downtown Bolton in western Hinds County far from the trappings of the nation’s Capitol where he is in line to chair the influential Homeland Security Committee should Democrats win back the House this November, Thompson seems fully vested in the state’s two Senate elections.

“With two senatorial elections and a good base vote turnout of African Americans, other traditional people who vote Democratic, the possibility exists,” of  Democratic victories said the 70-year-old Thompson. “You know the stars have to line up.

“We have two good candidates. They have to put their best feet forward to make this happen.”

Thompson has endorsed both Rep. David Baria and Espy. In the Democratic primary earlier this year, it could be argued that the Thompson endorsement was a key factor in Baria upending the much better funded Howard Sherman in the runoff election.

In this March 10, 2015 file photograph, Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, speaks at the well in House chambers at the Capitol in Jackson. Credit: Rogelio V. Solis / AP / File

Baria sought Thompson’s endorsement. That has not always been the case for some Mississippi Democrats, who shied away from Thompson’s liberalism and what some view as his racial-identity politics, but what he and others would contend are only attempts to level the playing field.

Thompson said he endorsed Baria because he knows him and believes he is strong on the issues that matter to Democrats. Thompson said he will be advocating for the national Democrats to not only to help fund the Espy campaign, but also the Baria effort even though it is considered much more of a longshot.

Espy held the 2nd District seat before Thompson and was the first African American U.S. House member in Mississippi since the Reconstruction era. But Espy has been removed from the Mississippi political process since the mid 1990s. And in winning the seat and holding it, Thompson has had to defeat two Espy family members, Henry Espy, brother of Mike, and Chuck Espy, a nephew.

When asked about his relationship with Espy, Thompson said, “I am on record supporting him.”

Will Democrats make the election a referendum on the flag?

Sen. Roger Wicker is the first Republican to run for a statewide office after advocating changing the state flag, which features the Confederate battle emblem significantly in its design.

U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker
Republican Sen. Roger Wicker to the media prior to a fundraising event in Ridgeland on May 1. Credit: Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Wicker of Tupelo, the incumbent United States senator, will be challenged by Democrat David Baria of Bay St. Louis, the state House minority leader, in the Nov. 6 general election. Baria also is on record as supporting a change in the state flag.

If a decision is made to change the flag, it will be made by the state Legislature and governor – not by the U.S. House and Senate.

Still, the issue of the flag will be a backdrop in the Baria-Wicker race as well as the special U.S. Senate election – also held on Nov. 6 to replace Thad Cochran who stepped down in March.

Cindy Hyde-Smith, who was appointed by Gov. Phil Bryant to replace Cochran in the interim and is running to hold the seat, said recently through a spokesman that she” believes residents decided on this issue when they voted in favor of the current state flag” in 2001.

State Sen. Chris McDaniel of Ellisville, an anti-establishment Republican running in the special election, has been an outspoken proponent of the current flag. He was expected to make the flag more of an issue in a campaign against Wicker. But when Cochran retired, McDaniel opted to run in the special election where the other Republican in the race, Hyde-Smith, also opposes changing the flag.

Democrat Mike Espy, a former U.S. House member and former secretary of agriculture in the Clinton administration, also is vying in the special election.

Of the flag, he said: “I think that the current Mississippi flag does not represent the attitudes of the vast majority of the people of our state- who want to work together for common purpose.  The flag is outdated, divisive, and evokes negative thoughts of a bygone era. Our flag should symbolize the theme of all Mississippians rising in unison to meet the challenges of the 21st century — and our flag does the opposite. Now that we have the two Mississippi museums- both sleek, modern and purposeful, we should take down the current flag and place it on exhibit in the museum of Mississippi History.”

Wicker first called for the replacement of the controversial state flag in June 2015 soon after the shooting at an African American church in Charleston, S.C., by a man who posed with white supremacist symbols in photos on the internet, including the Confederate battle flag. Nine people were killed in the church shooting.

Wicker equated removal of the flag with his Christian beliefs.

“In I Corinthians 8, the Apostle Paul said he had no personal objection to eating meat sacrificed to idols. But he went on to say that ‘if food is a cause of trouble to my brother, or makes my brother offend, I will give up eating meat.’ The lesson from this passage leads me to conclude that the flag should be removed since it causes offense to so many of my brothers and sisters, creating dissention rather than unity,” Wicker said in a June 2015 statement.

Sons of Confederate Veterans and other groups parade on the grounds of the state Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, in support of keeping the Confederate battle emblem on the state flag.  Credit: Rogelio V. Solis, AP

“This is an issue to be decided by the legislature and other state government officials and not dictated by Washington. If I can be part of a process to achieve consensus within our state, I would welcome the opportunity to participate.”

In 2017, Wicker reiterated that he believes that the flag should be placed in a museum and no longer serve as the state’s official banner.

Marty Wiseman, a political science instructor at Mississippi State and former executive director of the Stennis Institute of Government, said the flag could be an issue in the November election

“If somebody brings it up, it will certainly be an issue,” he said. “One thing you don’t know is which way it’s is going to splash. But if it is brought up, it certainly will be discussed.”

In the 2001 election on whether to change the state flag, studies have indicated that turnout in the African American community was low. In other words, the issue of the flag could generate higher turnout among white voters who oppose changing the flag than among African Americans and others who might support changing the banner.

But Wiseman said the flag could be an issue that generates black voter turnout this November.

The Obama elections in 2008 and 2012 “were some of the better black voter turnout (performances) in recent years. You have to wonder if Espy could replicate some of that.”

Who wins the ground game?

With the stakes high for Mississippi voters this year because of two Senate seats up for grabs, people feel more energized and self determined about their ability to decide who their leaders are, said Mississippi Votes executive director Arekia Bennett.

Mississippi Votes is nonprofit organization devoted to increasing civic engagement in the state.

“When people are introduced to their power, really effective change happens rapidly. That’s grassroots organizing at its core and purest form,” Bennett said.

Rogers McClellan votes during the 2018 Mississippi Primary Election at Christ United Methodist Church, voting precinct 46, in the 6000 block of Old Canton Road in Jackson Tuesday, June 5, 2018. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today

“It impacts you and your children and children’s children if you simply put a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on the ballot.”

The June 5 Senate primary saw almost 86,000 Democratic voters turn out to the polls to decide on a candidate, on par with the 85,866 who voted in the 2014 Democratic primary election in 2014. In that race former congressman Travis Childers received 74 percent of the vote so a runoff was not necessary. He later lost to Sen. Thad Cochran in the general election.

In the weeks leading up to this year’s June 26 runoff, both congressional and senate run-off candidates spent much of their time traveling through the state campaigning in different communities, restaurants, and events. Volunteers donned their candidate’s T-shirts and canvassed neighborhoods encouraging residents to get out and vote.

Mississippi already enjoys higher turnout than most other states. U.S. Census Bureau data shows in 2016, Mississippi ranked high in terms of reported registered voters, with 75.5 percent of the state’s citizens registered. Of those, 66.8 percent voted in November 2016 presidential election, 5.5 points higher than the national average.

Even though Mississippians vote heavily in federal elections, civil liberties groups are also keeping a close watch on efforts that critics say aim to make it more difficult for some groups to participate.

Since September 2017, state election officials have been twice sued over the way Mississippi bars people with certain felony convictions from voting. Earlier this year, Mississippi Today reported the state’s disqualification laws disproportionately affect black felons. Of the more than 56,000 Mississippians who lost the right to vote due to a felony conviction since 1994, 61 percent are black.

Recently, three African American men in the Delta filed a federal lawsuit accusing the state of gerrymandering a Senate district in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited discrimination in voting. The law also required Mississippi and other states that had a history of African American voter suppression to obtain approval from the federal government to change voting laws; the U.S. Supreme Court struck down that part of the law in 2013.

“In order for a democracy to work, we have to have people to participate,” said Charles Taylor, a longtime organizer with a background in voter engagement. “There’s a strong correlation between access of voting and ease of voting to participation.”

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots. Credit: Rogelio V. Solis, AP

In Mississippi, Taylor said he’s seen some precincts and counties without ballots when polls open early in the morning, or not have enough by the time polls close.

“Historically in Mississippi there has been some intimidation practices where there is an increase of law enforcement (at polls), and now because we don’t have the protection of section five of the Voting Rights Act I’m always leery of what elections can look like,” he said.

Recent experiences in Mississippi demonstrate how crucial voter registration and turnout can be. For example, in the 2014 Republican primary, an unknown candidate named Thomas Carey with nearly 5,000 votes — about 1.5 percent of the total — forced McDaniel and Cochran into a runoff.

While wide-reaching television and radio ads allow candidates to reach a larger audience, there’s something to be said for having a face to face discussion about the issues, she said.

“Having those conversations and being able to articulate what’s actually at stake has been and is the most powerful tool that I have,” Bennett said.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story and several others on our site misidentified U.S. Senate candidate Tobey Bartee as a Gautier city councilman. According to his campaign website, he was most recently an intelligence analyst for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Each story in which Bartee is misidentified has been edited. We regret the errors.  

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.

Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.

Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.